Outlook for elk is strong

August 16, 2013 10:48 am

 If you have a hunting tag for a deer or elk season in Wallowa County this fall, Mike Hansen probably would call you lucky.

Populations of both big game animals are trending up in much of the county, said Hansen, a wildlife technician at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Enterprise office.

“It should be a pretty good year,” Hansen said. 

“The qualifier is that conditions are quite dry.”

The drought almost certainly will affect archery hunters, whose month-long season starts Aug. 24.

There are widespread restrictions on campfires and off-road vehicle travel across Northeastern Oregon, and these could become even more stringent over the next several weeks.

And unless September turns out abnormally soggy, the ground’s likely to remain pretty crunchy and loud, and the fire danger high, when the rifle deer season opens on Sept. 28.

Conditions could change to the good by elk seasons in October and November.

In the meantime, though, hunters might be able to take advantage of one result of the aridity.

“Animals are going to be concentrated where there’s water,” said Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office.

Choosing the right water hole to hunt is a different matter, of course.

Wallowa County

Hansen said the county’s elk population, and bull numbers, have been improving.

Hansen, who spends much of his time in the Sled Springs unit, said he’s seen good numbers of both spike bulls and younger branch-antlered bulls there.

He attributes the healthy elk herd in part to weather — specifically, relatively cool and damp conditions in recent late summer/early autumn periods.

That helped spur the growth of grass and other forage, Hansen said. 

And when elk (deer benefit as well) can get nutritious food during the fall breeding period, the cows are more likely to conceive and to carry a calf to term.

“We’ve seen evidence of this in high calf numbers,” Hansen said.

Elk also have likely benefited from a declining population of cougars.

Hansen believes Wallowa County’s cougar population peaked eight to 10 years ago, and has fallen by perhaps as much as one-third since, though he concedes that’s merely a guess, as cougars are notoriously difficult to census.

He said he used to see as many as four cougars per year just during the course of his job.

The past few years he’s seen no more than one cougar per year.

Hansen said it’s not clear what’s responsible for the shrinking cougar population, although an outbreak of intestinal parasites has killed some cougars.

As for the county’s newest predator — wolves — Hansen said their numbers are too low to have had any measurable effect on Wallowa County’s elk herds.

“That could change,” he said. “We’re pretty early on in the wolf game here.”

Hansen said Wallowa County’s deer population has started to recover from a couple of harsh winters several years ago that
caused deer numbers to plummet.

Whitetail deer are doing especially well, he said, and they now account for about 20 percent to 25 percent of the annual harvest in the Sled Springs unit.

Baker County

Ratliff echoes Hansen’s thoughts about elk.

“We’re doing well with elk in all four units in the county,” Ratliff said.

In some cases the problem isn’t too many elk, precisely, but rather too many elk on private land, some of which is not open to hunters even by permission.

“We’re growing elk in Baker County, but the distribution is changing,” Ratliff said. “What I don’t want is all the elk to be a private land.”

ODFW has a couple of tools in its arsenal to deal with this dilemma.

One is setting up a list of hunters who are authorized to use muzzleloaders to hunt on private land, with the owner’s permission, to deal with elk that are causing damage.

That can be effective even if the hunters don’t kill an elk, Ratliff said, because muzzleloaders “make a lot of noise.”

Another is the state’s Access and Habitat Program, under which the state, using money from license fees, pays private landowners to allow hunters to access their properties.

“In effect hunters are buying their own access; there’s no tax dollars involved,” Ratliff said. 

“I think it’s a great, great program and I’d like to see it expanded in Baker County.”

It’s a competitive process, though, and there are far more property owners applying for Access and Habitat grants than money available, he said.

The outlook for deer hunters in Baker County is not so bright.

Ratliff said buck ratios in the Sumpter unit have dropped over the past few years, forcing ODFW to sell fewer tags for the rifle season. 

This year’s allotment of 1,400 is down 200 from last year.

The decline is rather mysterious, Ratliff said.

About four years ago the annual crop of fawns was below average, and not for any obvious reason such as a devastating winter.

Last fall ODFW officials counted a lot of young bucks, so the situation should be improving. But the effects of that one bad year — you might call it the lost generation — is still being felt because that year’s male fawns would have been mature bucks this year, and prime quarry for hunters, Ratliff said.