The overall numbers are good — but the inconsistencies are a bit mysterious.

Census counts by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife indicate deer in Union and Wallowa counties came through the relatively mild winter of 2017-18 in solid shape, ODFW biologists Leonard Erickson of La Grande and Pat Matthews of Enterprise said Wednesday night at a presentation at Cook Memorial Library.

Fawns in Union County clearly benefited from a mild winter, Erickson said. He said the over-winter fawn survival rate in Union County’s largest wildlife districts was just more than 80 percent.

“That is excellent,” Erickson said.

The survival rate is much higher that it was after the winter of 2016-17, one of the most severe in Northeast Oregon in decades.

Curiously, the mild winter of 2017-18 did not significantly boost fawn survival rates in Wallowa County. Matthews said the fawn survival rates this year were only slightly better than those following the harsh winter of 2016-17.

“Why were the survival rates so low this winter? I don’t know. With a much milder winter I expected the the survival rates to be much better, but that was not the case at all,” Matthews said.

The good news is that fawns in Wallowa County fared better during the winter of 2016-17 than those in Union County. This means Wallowa County had a more robust deer population entering the winter of 2017-18 and was thus in a better position to absorb losses.

Matthews said the population in Wallowa County is solid enough the number of tags allotted for hunts there by the state has not been altered significantly for the 2018 season. Erickson said the same holds true for Union County.

Matthews said high predation may be responsible for the low fawn winter survival rates. Coyotes,
cougars and wolves are among the biggest predators of deer fawns, he said.

The Enterprise ODFW biologist noted coyotes are among the most serious threats to fawns. Erickson agreed, noting coyotes pose not only a threat to fawns, but also adult deer. He noted a local study involving radio-collared adult does is providing evidence of this.

“We often find only a little fur and coyote tracks everywhere (at the site where radio-collared does were killed),” Erickson said.

Predation is playing a role in reducing overall mule deer numbers in recent years in Union and Wallowa counties.

“We are experiencing a slow but steady decline in mule deer,” Erickson said.

The population of white-tailed deer in Union and Wallowa counties is not declining, however. The reason may be they “are better at evading predators,” Matthews said.

Whitetails tend to live in agricultural areas where there are fewer predators, Erickson added.

Erickson and Matthews spoke at one of 19 public meetings the ODFW is conducting across the state on big game hunting regulations. The meetings are being conducted to give people a chance to hear about proposed changes to 2019 hunting regulations.

Erickson and Matthews said few changes regarding hunting regulations in Union and Wallowa counties are planned because of stable big game populations. One of the changes that may be made in Wallowa County include the addition of a bighorn sheep hunt in the Hat Point area southeast of Imnaha.

Matthews said there is a herd in the area filled with a number of bighorn sheep who are 10 to 15 years old.

“If we don’t give hunters the opportunity to harvest them, they will die of old age,” he said.

Matthews and Erickson both said that elk populations in the counties were bolstered by the mild winter of 2017-18 because it improved calf survival.

Union County emerged from the winter with elk calf ratios of 27 per 100 adults in the Starkey Unit and 29 per 100 in the Catherine Creek Unit. The ratios a year ago were only 12 per 100 cows in the Starkey Unit and 22 per 100 cows in the Catherine Creek Unit.

Elk calf survival rates in Wallowa County, which were down significantly after the winter of 2016-17, are also up this year.

The ODFW’s efforts to simplify game regulations were also discussed at the meeting. Erickson endorsed this effort.

“Regulations have become too complicated and convoluted,” he said.

A list of the proposed simplifications being proposed is available at class="Apple-converted-space">

The ODFW is now accepting public comments on these proposed simplifications and other regulation changes. Comments may be sent to Final 2019 Big Game Hunting Regulations will be adopted at the Sept. 14 Fish and Game Commission meeting in Bandon.