BAKER CITY — When Brian Ratliff gazes at the south-facing slopes that loom above the Snake, Powder and Burnt rivers in Baker County he’s gratified by the soft green haze he sees.
Better that than brown.
Or, worse still, white.
The green fuzz — detectable even from miles away — reveals a crop of tender grass that has sprouted, nourished by the periodic rains that arrived in Northeastern Oregon soon after the conclusion of a summer defined by severe drought.
This forage, coming as it has before snow has accumulated at the lower elevations that serve as winter range for many species, could spare deer and other wildlife from the potentially fatal deprivations of winter, said Ratliff, the district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) Baker City office.
“Right now it’s great,” Ratliff said Nov. 10. “If we had had a dry fall and then gone right to snow, we would be in a lot worse shape. I’m very, very happy that we got (the fall grass).”
That grass is especially vital for deer, Ratliff said.
The source of nutritious food allows deer to amass a layer of fat that can sustain them during the frigid weeks and months to come. Fawns are particularly vulnerable due to their smaller body mass, which can’t generate as much heat.
But Ratliff said bucks, which are in the rut now and thus burning more calories than usual, are also vulnerable to dry falls when most of the available forage has been left desiccated by the hot, dry summer.
Dry grass isn’t as nutritious as the new flush of growth spurred by rains in October and early November.
Elk and bighorn sheep tend to be hardier than deer, but those animals also benefit from the crop of nutritious grass just before winter descends.
Ratliff said he would have preferred to see the greenup begin a bit earlier, in late September or early October, which would have given animals more time to pack on pounds.
Although daytime temperatures have been near average, Ratliff said frequent sub-freezing nights have limited grass growth on north-facing slopes, which get much less sunlight.
Most of the new grass is confined to south slopes, with winter ranges in the Snake River country faring better than along the lower Powder and Burnt rivers, Ratliff said.
The situation is similar in Union County, said Matt Keenan, district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s La Grande office.
“We’re definitely seeing a fall greenup, and it’s a pretty welcome sight after such a dry summer,” Keenan said on Wednesday, Nov. 10. “It’s definitely going to help. It’s super crucial for deer and elk to add to those last-minute fat reserves.”
Like Ratliff, Keenan said the rain would have been even more beneficial had it arrived earlier in the fall, when warmer temperatures would have yielded a more bountiful grass crop.
During winter, deer, elk and bighorn sheep burn their fat reserves to produce body heat. So long as those reserves last, the animals can withstand even sub-zero temperatures for extended periods, biologists say.
But once those fat layers have been shed, deer in particular struggle to find enough to eat to keep their body temperature up.
Even with the welcome flush of new green grass this fall, Ratliff said deer could be vulnerable this winter.
“If we have a whopper of a winter again we’re going to lose deer,” he said.
During the last such winter, 2016-17, deep snow and prolonged periods of frigid temperatures devastated deer herds in Baker County and other parts of Northeastern Oregon.
In response to the loss of hundreds of animals, ODFW cut hunting tags by up to 50% for the 2017 hunting season.
In many units, deer herds have yet to recover enough to prompt state officials to increase tag allocations.
Benefits for birds, too
Autumn grass also benefits upland game birds such as chukars and quail that eat grass, Ratliff said.
Birds don’t need as much forage, of course, as the much larger deer and elk.
But Ratliff pointed out that birds are much less capable of digging through snow to reach grass compared with deer.
Snow doesn’t pose a major problem for deer unless it’s capped with an ice crust, he said.
But for birds, even several inches of snow can keep them from reaching the grass, Ratliff said.