By Jim Yuskavitch, for Oregon Hunter magazine
Weather plays a critical role in the success of a hunt. The weather affects access, the ability to track big game movements, how quiet or noisy the woods are, habitat quality and the abundance or lack thereof of the animals you are pursuing. The late snowfall that took most of Oregon from below-average in early winter to above average by late winter lasted into early spring. But because the temperatures were not extreme, big game didn’t seem to suffer inordinately as the animals did in some western states, although there still was some winter mortality across the board.
Weather will play another important role in hunter success this year with the week-later opening for “any legal weapon” deer season, and subsequent later openings for other hunts, as well. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife big game management framework, that season now begins on the first Saturday of October instead of the Saturday closest to Oct. 1. It’s a key season opening date, because later season starts are coordinated to this opener. In the year that the first Saturday of October falls on the 7th — which is the latest possible opening date for this hunt under the framework — the opening day jumps a week later. Then the opener for this and most other big game seasons will be a day earlier each year until it is time to reset once again.
This has some hunters concerned about how it might affect hunting success, particularly for later seasons where more snow might be encountered that could limit access. ODFW field biologists had some opinions on how this could impact this year’s big game hunts — and it’s all about the weather. Some biologists noted the later start will put the hunt overlapping more of the rut, which should be an advantage. Acknowledging the potential for heavy snows during the later seasons that could limit or deny hunter access to areas at higher elevations, a lighter dumping of snow would make tracking and locating deer and elk easier. The weather will have the final say.
Here’s an overview of the current status of big game across Oregon based on the latest data, along with some observations from local ODFW field biologists.
ODFW has conducted ongoing genetic sampling of black-tailed deer, and estimates that currently buck-to-doe ratios are around 60-to-100, more than twice what was estimated from spotlight surveys and hunter harvest data. Data from radio-collared doe black-tailed deer indicate that doe survival rates have increased since the 1990s to between 71 and 84 percent. These newer studies with more advanced data collection methods have made biologists cautiously optimistic that the population may no longer be declining and may even be increasing in some areas.
On the North Coast, Tillamook-based District Wildlife Biologist Dave Nuzum reported black-tailed deer to be doing very well, with buck ratios at or above management objective on all of his wildlife management units. Similarly, Christopher Yee, District Wildlife Biologist in Springfield, said black-tailed deer are “doing pretty well” on the west slope of the Cascades. The heavy winter snows created access problems for biologists doing surveys.
For mule deer on east side, the story continues to be less optimistic, but not necessarily disastrous, either. Data from 2022 surveys showed a population of 160,000 to 165,000 mule deer. While well below the management objective of 350,000, it is only a 0.2 percent decline from the previous year. Of the 49 units that support mule deer, the population increased in 19 units and decreased in 23 units. The mostly private West Biggs Unit is the only one where the mule deer numbers are at objective.
District Wildlife Biologist Tom Collom in Klamath Falls reported that he has really only seen a slight recent decline in mule deer population. However, added Collom, “We also had several mega fires over the past four years that have burned up a lot of good habitat.”
In John Day country, District Wildlife Biologist Ryan Torland reported, “Deer are not doing great. We had a little more winter this year and some high fawn mortality. The adults are doing OK, but their winter survival rate was a little less than we would like to see.” Right now his best deer unit is Murderers Creek, largely due to the Canyon Creek Fire several years ago that is now producing good habitat as the burn site regrows.
“Our deer are still being affected by the winter of 2016-17,” explained Hines-based ODFW wildlife biologist Lee Foster in the High Desert Region. “Fawn recruitment tapered off a little last year, but we had a slight increase in adults.”
ODFW is in the process of updating its mule deer management plan to address factors affecting populations in the state including quality and quantity of habitat, food sources, and road-kill mortality by developing more highway wildlife crossings – an initiative in which the Oregon Hunters Association is a key player.
In Oregon, elk are a “Tale of Two Regions.” Rocky Mountain elk from the east slope of the Cascades eastward are faring pretty well. The population is estimated at 70,876, which is only a little below the management objective of 73,650. Of the 35 units with Rocky Mountain elk populations, 17 are at or above management objective.
Ryan Torland, in John Day, noted that elk numbers in his district are more stable than deer, although some of his calf-to-cow ratios are low at around 14 to 100. Population maintenance level is around 17 or 18 to 100, and 25 or more calves per 100 cows is ideal. He also reported normal bull to cow ratios of 14 to 100. In the High Desert Region, Foster said that in his two elk units – Silvies and Malheur River – bull ratios are at objective. Bull ratios are strong in the Keno Unit at low- to mid-20s per 100 cows, according to Tom Collom.
In western Oregon, Roosevelt elk continue to struggle. The estimated population is around 56,500 – only 79 percent of the desired management objective of 70,850. The Sixes Unit in southwest Oregon is the only unit that is above management objective. The lowest Roosevelt elk populations are in the Santiam, McKenzie, Indigo and Chetco units at 50 percent or less of objective. A substantial factor in Roosevelt elk decline is attributed to the decrease in logging operations, especially on public lands in the Cascades, where Forest Service lands no longer produce the good ungulate habitat offered when logged areas regrow.
Nevertheless, Christopher Yee said his elk in the west central Cascades are “doing OK,” although ODFW was not able to get a very reliable count during this year’s aerial surveys. Heavy snow delayed the spring green-up, and cows and calves stayed in the timber and were difficult to count.
On the North Coast, Dave Nuzum said that local elk “are doing pretty well” and close to objectives, although, because of the late winter in the Coast Range, access to do surveys was delayed this year.
Oregon’s pronghorn population has been stable over the past few years, although the estimated 16,000 to 19,000 is considerably less than in the early 1990s when the numbers were nearly double. The hard winter of 2016-17 knocked pronghorns down in Baker, Harney and Malheur counties, and they are still recovering, and a number of years of drought didn’t help, either. Lee Foster reported that some of the High desert pronghorn populations are faring well. He also noted that melt-off from heavy snow this winter has made the desert very wet. That means there is plenty of water out there for pronghorns, and hunters may find them more scattered than in recent drought years.
With a statewide population of about 4,200 to 4,500, California bighorns, which occupy desert mountain areas in southeast Oregon and the John Day and Deschutes river canyons, are fairly stable. Lee Foster reported that his bighorn herds are stable, with no disease issues, although the Pueblo Mountains herd is down a little. ODFW is still looking into potential causes.
Ryan Torland related that the McClellan and Aldrich herds are doing fine, and a few have even dispersed to the lower Middle Fork John Day River area.
The Rocky Mountain bighorn population in Northeast Oregon is estimated at 800 to 900 animals and some still have some disease issues, primarily Mycoplasma ovipneumonia, which causes respiratory disease in wild sheep.
However, hunters who draw tags for either California or Rocky Mountain bighorns continue to have high success rates.
Oregon’s Rocky Mountain goat population is estimated at about 1,200, with most of them in the Elkhorn and Wallowa mountains, and have been stable or increasing in recent years. The Cascade Mountain population in the Mount Jefferson-Three-Fingered Jack area is also doing well. The 2020 Lionshead fire caused some changes in distribution, but didn’t affect population size.
In the Strawberries, Torland reported that the goat population is stable. Some have moved into the Desolation Unit, and a very few have been seen in the West Beulah hunt area.
Bear and Cougar
Bear and cougar status remains largely the same, with robust black bear numbers wherever there is good, forested habitat. The Coast Range remains a hotspot with populations increasing as you move southward. Oregon’s statewide bear population is estimated to be around 34,000.
The cougar population remains strong as well, with an estimated statewide population near 7,000, including all age classes. Dave Nuzum, in Tillamook, noted that he is continuing to see more cougar harvest and damage complaints each year. He reported that one cougar radio-collared in a study further south along the coast has turned up in his district.
The state’s estimated cougar population has more than doubled since Measure 18 banned the use of hounds to hunt cougars in 1994.