For this year’s big game hunting prospects, the operative word is “winter,” in that there hardly was one in most of the state. While a warm winter and low snowpack brings with it potential problems for farmers, fish and increased wildfire danger, it also facilitates better overwinter survival for all age classes of big game animals.

Wildfires have also been an important factor. The recent big range fires were very bad news for sage grouse but in many areas wildfires have also created a mosaic of early successional growth that deer, elk and other animals are benefiting from and helping their populations along. These and other factors point to a potentially good 2015 big game hunting season, and in some parts of Oregon perhaps better than we have seen in some time. In fact, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently planning to increase controlled deer tags by about one percent statewide, and elk tags by three percent. Here’s what a sampling of ODFW wildlife biologist are saying about big game for 2015:

Deer

Overall mule deer numbers are down throughout the state, although that is the case across the Western U.S. and not just in Oregon. However, that doesn’t necessarily translate into lower populations and reduced hunting opportunities across the board.

According to Justin Primus, ODFW assistant district wildlife biologist in Baker City, mule deer numbers are stable to increasing and buck-to-doe ratios are at a decent 15:100, although fawn-to-doe ratios are a little low at 30:100 (38 to 40 would be better for growing the populations). Nevertheless, “Because of the mild winter there was good overwinter survival and there should be a fair number of older class bucks available,” says Primus.

“Our deer are doing pretty good and are mostly at management objectives,” says John Day assistant district wildlife biologist Angelique Curtis. Things are looking especially good in the Murderers Creek unit with a fawn-to-doe ratio of 41:100, which means an increasing population, while the Northside Unit has a ratio of 29:100. While the John Day area isn’t known for trophy bucks, Curtis expects hunters will find decent numbers of forked-horned animals to harvest. 

The mule deer situation in the High Desert Region around Burns is less rosy, with the deer population below management objectives in all area units. On a positive note, the animals went into winter in good body conditions, and because the weather was mild, came out of it in good condition as well. One big concern is that the High Desert has had several years of severe drought and another dry summer would suppress vegetation growth with an adverse affect on deer, particularly in the desert units. “Overall, though, we had good survival and it should be a pretty good year for deer hunters, but we are watching our desert units,” says Autumn Larkins, assistant district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Hines office.

Black-tailed deer buck ratios are at or above management objectives in much of the western Cascades, although the lack of logging on national forest lands has reduced the amount of early successional habitat that deer need. Nevertheless, as elsewhere, the mild winter really helped increase survival levels according to Brian Wolfer, ODFW district wildlife biologist in Springfield.

“Our deer counts this spring have been good,” says Central Point-based district wildlife biologist Mark Vargas, “and we have decent black-tailed deer numbers.” That should provide a favorable deer season in southwest Oregon, with one caveat. Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease struck the area last fall and Vargas noted that they “picked up quite a few dead animals from lower elevations and had reports of more carcasses at higher elevations.” The final mortality rate from the outbreak is still unknown and could impact hunting success this fall.

Dave Nuzum, assistant district wildlife biologist in Tillamook has better news for the North Coast, reporting “We’ve seen an upward trend in the deer populations, buck ratios are good and with the mild winter should see increased survival.”

Elk

On the North Coast, Nuzum notes that elk are doing very well, with calf and bull ratios at or above management objectives. There was also very good overwinter survival even with a heavy harvest during last year’s elk season.  Elk are also doing well in southwest Oregon. “Elk are looking good on the Chetco and Sixes units,” says Vargas. The Chetco unit has had increasing elk numbers over the past three to four years.”

However, both Vargas and Brian Wolfer report that elk numbers are still below desirable levels in the Cascades, mainly on national forest lands, which have seen a decline in logging activity. “The national forests are getting bigger, deeper and darker, and the elk continue to be hard to hunt with a low success rate,” says Wolfer. For that reason he strongly encourages elk hunters to do some serious preseason scouting, looking at areas burned in wildfires, areas that have been heavily thinned and grassy meadows. One new factor affecting both elk and deer hunting is Weyerhaeuser’s new fee hunting policy that has displaced some hunters looking to avoid paying for access into new areas. The result is there may be more competition with other hunters than previously in some places.

On a more positive note, elk are doing very well in the eastern half of the state. Curtis, in John Day, reports that elk are above management objective for all their units. “It will be great elk hunting this year,” she says. She also noted that much of the nearly 70,000-acre wildfire in the Murderers Creek unit burned in a patchwork that has created very desirable habitat conditions for ungulates. Elk in the High Desert units are also doing great. “We are above M.O. in all of our elk units — Silvies, Malheur and a good chunk of the High Desert Elk Hunt,” says Autumn Larkins.

In Northeast Oregon, Justin Primus says, “Elk are increasing as well, with the Lookout Mountain unit at management objective and Pine Creek and Keating elk numbers also very good.” A big problem for elk managers in this part of the state is limiting elk-caused crop damage, but blocks of private land often prevent hunters from getting access to reduce herd numbers where needed.

Pronghorn

As with any big game species, pronghorn have their ups and downs, but in general rarely give wildlife managers much to worry about as far as big population declines go. They are pretty steady and reliable and that remains true for 2015 as well.

Rocky Mountain Goat

Rocky Mountain goat populations continue to thrive in Oregon. Last year the Strawberry Mountain herd was doing well enough to offer its first tag (with the tag winner successfully harvesting an animal) and another tag will be offered again this year. “Mountain goats are doing well,” says Justin Primus in Baker City. With about 180 animals, the Elkhorn herd provides the source animals for reintroductions into new areas and supplementing established populations around the state. One recent translocation was the reintroduction of Rocky Mountain goats into the central Oregon Cascades. However, Primus reports that so far there are no requests from any of the ODFW districts for animals for this year.

Bighorn Sheep

Although, as in other parts of the West, bighorns in Oregon sometimes have problems with disease outbreaks, for the most part they are doing well and numbers are generally stable. The Lookout Mountain herd is the only one in the state that has never had any disease issues according to Justin Primus. “We have a few old age class rams and a few in the 180 to 185 range,” he says. In the John Day area, the McClellan and Aldrich Mountain herds are doing well, although in southeast Oregon the Riverside bighorn hunt has been cancelled for the time being due to a decline in that herd, although ODFW biologist have been seeing more lambs recently indicating the animals may be rebuilding their numbers again. Other bighorn herds are doing fine, though, and Hines-based biologist Larkins reports, “We have lots of mature rams.” She also notes that, “ODFW manages bighorns conservatively so that when hunters draw a once-in-a-lifetime tag they have a very good change of getting an animal.”

Bear and Cougar

Oregon has very good populations of bear and cougar. Sticking mainly to forested habitats, some of the best bear hunting is in the Coast Range and southwest Oregon, with the Applegate unit continuing to produce the largest harvest in the state. For fall bear hunting, focus on where the berries are becoming ripe while in the spring look for open grassy hillsides and clearcuts where the bears graze on fresh green-up.

Cougars are more challenging to find and while some hunters are consistently successful using predator calls, most are taken opportunistically while hunting other species. Says Mark Vargas, “The best advice we give is to tell hunters to have a bear and cougar tag on them when they are out deer or elk hunting.”

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