In the fall of 1992, a friend and I drove east to hunt mule deer. In places like Joseph and Enterprise, and out past Post and Paulina, we counted hundreds of deer in one day. Herds of 50 or a hundred does with small bucks in the mix and always a big mule deer buck tucked up on a butte. It opened my eyes.
I would never see that many deer in Oregon ever again. The winter of 1992-93 was especially hard on deer when the snow crusted over. Thousands of deer were winter-killed. Biologists thought the herds would bounce back. They always did before.
In those days deer numbers ebbed and flowed with the numbers of predators. Cougars were hunted with hounds, and a lot of people trapped the coyotes that preyed on the fawns. When the voters outlawed hunting cougars with hounds in 1994, the numbers of deer didn’t rebound. Think about it. An adult cougar is probably going to kill 50 deer or elk a year if it gets its way. That’s a lot better success rate than your average hunter, who tags a mule deer maybe once every four or five seasons.
It is easy to find reasons why deer numbers have not bounced back. But let’s talk about winter range. Drive through the Columbia Basin, out to Enterprise or Whitney and along the base of the Elkhorns and you will see deer in twos and threes. Count the fawns. Every doe should have a fawn each spring and often two. By January there are probably 45 fawns for each 100 does. What happened to them? Is that enough fawns to rebuild a deer herd? It’s not. But the primary limiter is winter range. Deer are most fragile in late March and even in April it is hard to get the nutrition they need to stay alive. Weakened by winter, they are easy prey for cougars, coyotes and bobcats.
Miles of sagebrush, native grasses, stands of bitterbrush and mountain mahogany should provide food, thermal shelter cover and escape for deer, elk, pronghorn and other species that make the desert home when snows blanket the mountains.
We take it for granted winter range will always be there, that there will always be a place for deer, elk and antelope. We are losing winter range fast.
Oregon’s winter range is at the center of discussions from Portland to Salem to Hermiston, Burns and Lakeview.
The abundance of sunshine in Eastern Oregon makes it a prime location for solar farms.
When the sun shines, solar panel arrays collect the free energy. Blue sky days are dependable east of the Cascades. The more solar panels there are, proponents of the technology tell us, the better we prevent pollution, minimize waste and conserve natural resources. Really?
In March 2016, Kate Brown signed House Bill 4037 into law to offer a half-cent-per-kilowatt-hour incentive to large scale solar projects. Oregon is moving away from dependence on coal with a mandate to reach 25% dependence on renewable energy sources by 2025 and be 100% reliant on renewable energy by 2030.
The Oregon Solar Plan (2017) targets 10% solar power by 2027, powering 500,000 Oregon homes. In December 2016, Oregon had 264 megawatts of solar installations, which was enough to power 30,000 homes.
We have a long way to go. We get there by offering tax breaks to industry. Right now, incentives for commercial solar installations include a Federal Investment Tax Credit, state and utility rebate programs and accelerated depreciation.
Wonder where these projects will end up? Eastern Oregon offers the most dependable blue sky days and cheap land.
The Oregon Solar Plan says, “In the very near future, thriving communities will share a common commitment: to harness and use power from the sun. These communities will have robust solar industries that support local economic growth and provide local job opportunities. These communities will have resilient energy systems and stable electricity costs.”
Let’s add another sentence: And no mule deer.
What are the biggest threats to mule deer? Predators, poachers, disease, juniper encroachment, invasive plants. Maybe the biggest one is habitat loss. If predators are the problem, they tend to stop expanding when the prey base is limited. Energy development doesn’t stop when deer numbers decline.
That’s what vineyards, marijuana grows and solar farms all have in common. When the fences go up, deer, elk, antelope and even the pygmy rabbits are locked out.
A lot of people look at empty sagebrush land or stands of bitterbrush and call it junk land. I call it critical winter range. The fact that it has no people or homes on it, the fact that it is only fit for deer browse, is what makes it valuable.
Imagine, instead of a sea of silvered sagebrush, thousands of acres of solar panels. Where do the mule deer go when snow blankets the Blues and the Ochocos? With a solar farm on core winter range, the only place left to go is to farm and ranch lands, where they are not welcome.
Call it a green revolution. Call it a land rush. But the location of solar farms on empty land has a cumulative effect. Without winter range we have no mule deer.
Each of these projects are proposed one by one. Who is studying the cumulative effects?
We are tipping the scales in favor of the solar farm industry and those areas are not available for mule deer anymore.
Think solar farms will reduce our carbon footprints? I’d rather see deer tracks in bitterbrush than a sea of black mirrors pointed at the sky.