Skittish whitetails gain toehold in N.E. Oregon

By Dick Mason, The Observer October 14, 2011 10:11 pm

whitetails are rarely found in deep forests or at mid- to high-elevation areas. JIM WARD photo
whitetails are rarely found in deep forests or at mid- to high-elevation areas. JIM WARD photo

They are an all-season fixture in La Grande — the mule deer that lazily amble along and across the streets.

Occasionally, sharp-eyed drivers and pedestrians will see a whitetailed deer in town. Never, however, anticipate seeing the following — a whitetailed deer strolling across a street as if it does not have a care in the world.


Whitetails do not look dramatically different than mule deer. But their personalities are polar opposites.

“Whitetails are more jittery, nervous and skittish,’’ said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Leonard Erickson.

He said whitetails are not likely to be seen slowly crossing a street or to let people come close.

“They are a shyer animal,’’ Erickson said.

But whitetails are just as daring when it comes to invading yards.

“They eat in gardens just as much as mule deer,’’ Erickson said.

Whitetails are not spotted in gardens often, however, because they tend to come into gardens after dark.

Five decades ago, Union County residents never had to worry whitetails were eating their apples or vegetables. Whitetails were virtually nonexistent in Union County, according to Mike Kemp of La Grande, a retired ODFW biologist. Kemp said the first report he heard of a whitetail in Union County was in 1965 or 1966 when someone driving a fish-stocking truck reported spotting a whitetail on Fly Creek near Starkey.

Later, whitetails began to be reported in Palmer Valley and in the Lookkingglass Creek areas.

Today, whitetails have a wide distribution in Union County.

Whitetails have also expanded their range significantly in Wallowa County since the 1960s. Today they can be found in all of its hunt units, according to Enterprise ODFW Biologist Vic Coggins.

It is not known why whitetails have been expanding their range in Northeast Oregon. There are a number of theories. Some people believe that the growing number of wolves in Idaho may be pushing whitetails into Oregon.

A second possibility is the exceptionally aggressive nature of whitetail bucks when they are in rut, said La Grande outdoorsman Phil Gillette. He said that whitetail bucks travel far during rut in search of does and will not even let rivers stop them. Gillette said some bucks may not travel back to where they came from after the rut, causing the distribution of whitetails to expand.

Whitetail bucks are more aggressive than mule deer when in rut, said Gillette, the owner of Phil’s Outdoor Surplus and More. They will fight fellow whitetail bucks more furiously for females. Two mule deer bucks in rut may back off after sparring but not a pair of whitetails.

“They may fight to the death,’’ Gillette said.

Muzzleloader hunters may encounter sparring whitetail bucks next month during the annual whitetail muzzleloader hunt in portions of Union County. Whitetails will be in their rut during the hunt.

Hunters are advised to hunt agricultural areas and creek bottoms, places frequented by whitetails. Unlike mule deer, whitetails are rarely found in deep forests or at mid- to high-elevation areas.

Whitetails often appear shy around people. But they may not be shy about pushing mule deer out of habitat they like. Jim Ward of La Grande, an outdoor writer and photographer, and a member of the Oregon Hunters Association, suspects whitetails are dominant in the presence of mule deer. Ward has lived on Foothill Road next to Ladd Marsh for several decades. He said that initially mule deer were always around his yard but today they have been replaced by whitetails as their population has grown. Ward said he believes this may indicate that the whitetails pushed out the mule deer.