Elk, deer census

By Dick Mason, The Observer May 06, 2011 03:33 pm
ODFW survey: game animals survive winter in solid shape The long winter will not short deer and elk hunters of opportunities this fall.

Preliminary population counts by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists indicate that overall deer and elk in Union and Wallowa counties survived this year’s extended winter in solid shape.

Old man winter’s extended icy grip, however, did get the best of one segment of the deer and elk population — the fawns of Wallowa County.

Census counts made via helicopter indicate there are 31 fawns per 100 adults in Wallowa County, down from 38 per 100 a year ago, said Pat Matthews, an Enterprise ODFW biologist.

Matthews attributes a portion of the drop to the extended winter conditions the region experienced. Spring grasses and other vegetation became available only later.

“The late greenup set the fawns back,’’ Matthews said.

The biologist fears more fawns may have been lost since the ODFW aerial deer count was made in March because winter-like conditions prevailed through much of April, further delaying spring greenup.

A late winter is not the only reason fawn numbers are down. Matthews explained that the fawn total was already low because of high predation by cougars and coyotes.

Fortunately, the picture for fawns in Union County looks brighter.

“Fawn survival was better than we anticipated,’’ said ODFW Biologist Leonard Erickson.

Fawn numbers are up from a year ago in the Starkey and East Mount Emily units and down slightly in the Catherine Creek Unit.

It is not known exactly why fawns escaped the winter in solid shape in Union County. One reason may be that they entered the winter in good condition because a late fall greenup provided plenty to eat, allowing them to build fat reserves.

A second major factor that likely boosted Union County fawn survival was a four to six-week stretch of less severe winter weather from early January through early February.

“That break was critical,’’ Erickson said.

It proved particularly important because winter-like weather extended far into spring.

Buck ratios also look good in Union County. Buck ratios are up in all three units. The Starkey Unit has 12 bucks per 100 does, up three from a year ago; Catherine Creek has 17 bucks per 100 does, up three from a year ago; and the East Mount Emily Unit has 16 bucks per 100 does, up five from a year ago.

But there is bad news. Preliminary census counts indicate that deer numbers overall in Union County could be down moderately. Hunters should not be alarmed, though, since the reason for the lower count numbers may be that deer have been harder to count during flights by ODFW biologists.

Erickson explained that because of the late winter there was less fresh vegetation in open areas for deer to feed on when census flights were made. Fewer deer were in the open when counts were made.

“The late-arriving spring has influenced observability,’’ Erickson said.

The picture for elk in Union County looks about the same as it does for deer. Calf survival rates in the Starkey and Catherine Creek units are the same as a year ago and up in the East Mount Emily Unit.

Bull-to-cow ratios are up in all three Union County units. But overall elk numbers are down slightly. The reason, as in the case with deer, may be that elk have been harder to observe during census flights because of the late greenup.

A second factor could be that many elk migrated from Union County to the McKay Creek area of Umatilla County this winter to feed on winter wheat.

“Many of these elk may not have come back yet,’’ Erickson said.

Any elk that have not returned are from the Starkey Unit. To address this situation the ODFW will conduct more census counts of the Starkey Unit later this spring when all elk that will return from McKay Creek are back, Erickson said.

Elk counts have not started in Wallowa County. Strong winds have prevented biologists from using an airplane to make census flights.

The winds, however, did not delay aerial deer counts in Wallowa County because a helicopter is used instead of a plane to check on deer populations there, Matthews said. Helicopters fly better in windy conditions than planes, he said.

Matthews anticipates that Wallowa County’s elk population will be about the same as it was a year ago.

ODFW biologists in Union and Wallowa counties will likely recommend to the Fish and Wildlife Commission that it allot approximately the same number of deer and elk tags for hunt units in Union and Wallowa counties as it did in 2010, Matthews and Erickson said.

One exception will be the Catherine Creek Unit. There, biologists will recommend that the total number of cow tags be boosted by 50 and that the number of any-bull tags for rifle hunts be increased by 25.

The deadline for submitting applications for big game hunt tags in Oregon is May 15.

Hunters who need help with the application process or want more information on big game populations should attend an open house at the ODFW Northeast Region office, 107 20th St., Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m.