May 09, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The winter of 2001-2002 did not have extreme temperatures but it did have an extreme impact on deer fawn survival in some areas of Northeast Oregon.

For proof look no further than the Starkey Unit.

Fawn survival dropped significantly this winter in the unit, according to surveys conducted recently by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fawn survival was 54 percent, a steep drop from 81 percent a year ago. ODFW biologist Leonard Erickson attributes the drop to the hard winter.

"We did not have extreme temperatures but it was a long winter. There was snow cover for an unusually long time,'' Erickson said.

The situation was exasperated by the fact that the region had a hot, dry summer in which forage for deer was limited. Many deer went into the winter in poor condition as a result, Erickson said.

Fawns are more susceptible to harsh winters than elk calves because they are smaller and not as aggressive when seeking food, Erickson said.

Although fawns struggled through the winter, adult deer fared much better. As a result, ODFW biologists are recommending that the number of tags allotted for most hunts in Union and Wallowa counties remain the same. A total of 2,300 buck tags will be recommended for Union County's units, the same as last year, and 4,650 will be suggested for Wallowa County. The Wallowa County total is down 100 from last year, said Enterprise ODFW biologist Vic Coggins.

The recommendations were cut by 50 each in the Wenaha and Sled Springs units because deer survival was down due to harsh weather, Coggins said.

"Winter came earlier (in the units) and there was deep snow,'' Coggins said.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will vote on biologists' 2003 tag proposals in June.


On the elk calf front there is reason for hope and concern.

First the good news.

In Wallowa County the elk calf survival rate jumped for the first time in several years. There are now 26 calves per 100 cows, a significant jump from a year ago when there were 21 calves per 100 cows. In 2000 there were 18 calves per 100 cows.

Coggins believes the increase may reflect the fact that large number of cougars are being taken by hunters.

Coggins said that an increasing cougar population is the reason elk calf survival rates had fallen since 1995. Coggins noted that 1995 was the first year hunters could not use dogs in Oregon to hunt cougars.

Coggins noted that it was once common for Wallowa County to have 40 percent calf survival rates. In the 1970s, the county the had rates as high as 48 percent.

On the down side, calf survival rates were disturbingly low in the Starkey Unit for the third year in a row. There are just 23 calves per 100 cows in the Starkey Unit. This marks the third year in a row that calf ratio has been between 21 and 23 per 100 cows.

"This is an extremely low calf ratio. We are very concerned,'' Erickson said.

Traditionally, Starkey has had calf ratios of 28-32 per 100 cows.

It is not know why calf ratios continue to be down in the Starkey Unit, Erickson said.

Calf ratios are stronger in the Catherine Creek Unit, where there are 29 calves per 100 cows, a jump of 11 from a year ago. Erickson believes calves may do better in the Catherine Creek Unit because some venture into the fringes of the Grande Ronde Valley in the winter where food is more accessible.

Overall elk populations in Union and Wallowa counties remain comparable to a year ago. As a result, the number of elk tags recommended for controlled hunts will be similar to a year ago.

For example, in the Starkey Unit 400 tags will be recommended for any elk and 2,300 will be recommended for spike-only hunts. This is the same number allotted a year ago.

In Wallowa County, a total of 4,420 tags will be recommended, the same number issued a year ago. The number is indicative of how the elk population in Wallowa County has fallen since substantially less than 7,030 tags allotted.


ODFW biologists in Union and Wallowa counties have had to spend much more time conducting deer and elk population counts than they have for many years. Biologists had limited access to aircraft for aerial counts because of budget reductions, so most of the counts had to be conducted on the ground.

Erickson said that landowners went out of their way to make their property accessible for the counts.

"We had excellent cooperation from landowners,'' Erickson said.

Making ground counts did give biologists a better look at wildlife, Erickson said.

"We have a a closer understanding now of how animals interact with their habitat.''