May 01, 2003 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Old Man Winter and his perpetual scowl rarely appeared in Northeast Oregon in 2002-2003.

Deer and elk hunters thus have reason to smile.

Deer and elk populations in Union and Wallowa counties are at least as good and in some cases higher than they were a year ago based on recent Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife counts. The extremely mild winter experienced by the region helped populations remain stable or go up, said La Grande ODFW biologist Leonard Erickson.

In Wallowa County, deer and elk populations are up, but not as much as one might expect in light of the mild winter — especially for deer. There was not a significant increase in fawn survival often experienced during mild winters, said Enterprise ODFW biologist Pat Matthews.

One reason over-winter fawn survival did not jump as much as expected may be that predators are taking many of the young animals. Matthews believes an increase in the cougar population is making it harder for fawns to survive.

Oregon's cougar population has grown significantly since late 1994 when voters approved Measure 18. The measure prohibits the use of dogs for tracking cougars.

Northeast Oregon's cougar population is higher than it was five or six years ago.

Matthews said Wallowa County's cougar population is definitely higher than it was five or six years ago. The biologist noted that bears and coyotes also kill many fawns in Wallowa County.

Hunters are examining the ODFW's population counts closely as they prepare to apply for controlled hunt tags.

ODFW biologists will propose that the number of tags allocated for deer and elk in Union and Wallowa counties be about what they were last year.

There will be some changes, though.

In Wallowa County, biologists will recommend that an antlerless elk hunt be added in the Imnaha Unit. This would be the first antlerless elk hunt in the Imnaha Unit in three or four years.

In the Starkey Unit, the number of tags for three antlerless elk hunts will be trimmed slightly. The number of proposed tags will be cut by 25 per hunt. Between 100 and 175 tags would be issued for each hunt if biologists proposals are approved.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will vote on whether to adopt the tag proposals at a meeting in June.

Following is a breakdown of the outlook for elk and deer hunting in Union and Wallowa counties based on population counts


Union County deer

Prospects will be best in the Starkey Unit, where the population is significantly above the ODFW's management objective level. The population was boosted by an improvement in the fawn survival rate. There are 37 fawns per 100 adults, up from 28 a year ago. In addition there are a large number of older bucks in the unit.

"Deer hunting should be good,'' Erickson said.

Prospects are much dimmer in the Catherine Creek Unit, where the deer population is just 40 percent of the ODFW's management objective. The Catherine Creek Unit has 28 fawns per 100 adults, down from 29 per 100 adults a year ago.

"This was disappointing after the mild winter we had,'' Erickson said.

The biologist said the overall outlook for deer hunting in the Catherine Creek Unit will be similar to last fall when hunting was fair.

Union County elk

Hunters in the Starkey Unit will find a strong number of older bulls because harvest rates were down last fall due to poor hunting conditions.

"There was little snow, and elk were widely scattered last fall,'' Erickson said.

Biologists continue to be concerned about low calf survival rates in the Starkey Unit. There are just 22 calves per 100 cows. This marks the fourth straight spring that the Starkey calf survival rate has been between 21 and 23 per 100 cows. Prior to five years ago the Starkey fawn survival rate was always between 28 and 32 per 100 cows.

"This is disturbing,'' Erickson said.

He said the lower survival rate could be attributable to a growing number of cougars and and a healthy bear population.

The Starkey Unit has about 5,300 elk, which is right at the ODFW's management objective.

In the Catherine Creek Unit, the elk hunting outlook is much dimmer. The elk population is just 67 percent of the ODFW's management objective. A year ago the population level was 84 percent of the management objective.

The low numbers may be a reflection of continued poor over -winter calf survival.

Wallowa County elk

The outlook is continuing to improve because the elk population is beginning to rise in Wallowa County after years of continual decline. There are about 12,800 elk in Wallowa County, up from 11,900 in 2002.

Wallowa County's increasing elk population may reflect the fact that more cougars are being taken by hunters, Matthews said. It may also reflect the fact that the hunting of antlerless elk has been very restricted.

Despite the recent increase, Wallowa County's elk population is far below the ODFW's management objective of 17,050.

Wallowa County deer

The outlook for deer hunting will essentially be the same as it was last fall. There are 20,500 deer in Wallowa County, a slight increase from 2001, the last time an aerial count was conducted prior to this spring.

"Our deer population is holding its own. It has stabilized,'' Matthews said.

The number of tags that ODFW biologists will recommend for this fall per unit in Union and Wallowa counties will be about what they were in 2002.