To understand the significance of deer hunting season in Northeastern Oregon, consider this:
The number of hunters who will venture into the region’s woods and rangelands when the rifle buck season starts Oct. 1 is not far below the total population of La Grande and Baker City combined.
About 22,000 people, all told.
Which is to say, deer hunting is a big deal around here.
And hunters who were fortunate enough to draw a tag through the state’s lottery system should have a decent chance to come home with fresh meat.
“It should be, not a great year, but not a bad year by any means,” said Justin Primus, assistant district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) Baker City office.
Generally speaking, deer herds are doing well across Baker, Union and Wallowa counties.
Despite a relatively harsh winter of 2015-16, survival of fawns — which make up this fall’s crop of yearling bucks — was 70 percent or higher in most units.
That’s an important statistic, Primus said, because younger bucks — forked horns and spikes — make up a significant percentage of the bucks killed in most units — 40 percent in the Imnaha Unit, 45 percent in Sumpter, and 47 percent in Sled Springs, to name a few.
Hunters who are looking for a nice set of antlers as well as venison also have reason for optimism.
The ratio of bucks to does, as counted this past spring, exceeds ODFW’s goals in a majority of the tri-county area’s hunting units, which means a decent number of mature bucks will be available as well.
In several units the annual harvest runs more heavily to older bucks.
In eastern Baker County’s Lookout Mountain Unit, for instance, 38 percent of the 197 bucks killed during the 2015 rifle season had four points or more.
Keating Unit, in northern Baker County, posted a 36 percent figure.
The drought continues, but it’s not as severe as it was in 2015.
As always, widespread rain would improve stalking conditions.
Primus said cooler temperatures recently should prompt deer to be more active during the day.
“Deer are likely to stay in cooler, moister areas — north slopes and high meadows,” he said.
With the exception of the 42,000-acre Rail fire in southwestern Baker County, this has been a quiet wildfire season across the region. That means hunters won’t have to deal with fire-related land closures, or large swathes of freshly burned ground that deer will avoid, as was the case last year, especially in Baker County’s Sumpter Unit, where the 104,000-acre Cornet/Windy Ridge fire burned.
The U.S. Forest Service has canceled campfire and chain saw restrictions, but the agency urges hunters and other forest users to continue to be careful with fires.