A handful of new hunts highlight the changes for the new year.
By Jim Yuskavitch
There aren’t a great many changes for big game regulations and hunts slated for the 2024 seasons, but that’s not a bad thing, and doesn’t mean that a lot hasn’t been happening behind the scenes in the world of managing Oregon’s big game animals.
On a practical level for hunters, it means fewer new regulations, hunt dates and other changes to the 2024 seasons to navigate.
On a management level, it suggests that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s long-term effort, beginning in 2018, to simplify hunting regulations and test some wildlife management actions to provide more hunting opportunities may be starting to bear some fruit.
Nevertheless, there are a few changes of note. Here’s a brief overview of those changes and what went into the decisions.
When ODFW began its review and update of big game hunting regulations in 2018, one of the major ideas they explored, and implemented in 2020, was the concept of including western Oregon spike bucks in the bag limit by changing the regulations from “one buck having not less than a forked antler” to “one buck with visible antler,” along with changing the Oregon 600-series bag limit from “one antlerless or spike deer” to “one antlerless deer.”
The idea behind this concept was to make deer bag limits consistent throughout the state that would in turn reduce the number of spikes mistaken for bucks while allowing for increased hunting opportunities. For the 600-series hunts, the focus was on population and damage control. In analyzing the harvest after three years of implementing the concept, ODFW biologists found that including spike bucks in the western Oregon bag limits has not impacted mature buck harvest stats to date. Overall, ODFW believes the concept is working, although ODFW and OHA will continue to monitor ongoing harvest data.
Unfortunately, Oregon’s mule deer population continues to decline with a 3.6-percent drop for 2023 to between 150,000 to 160,000 animals. Mule deer populations were below management objective across the state except one unit in 2023. The situation is a little better for black-tailed deer, where new methods for counting them have been developed that are more accurate than the traditional spotlighting surveys. Current data suggest that the black-tailed deer population in western Oregon is no longer declining and may even be increasing in some management units.
The few changes for 2024 include five new youth buck hunts in southeast Oregon offering a total of 110 tags, and a late-season archery hunt for white-tailed deer in Grant County. Population declines in some hunt areas, combined with low hunter success, is resulting in a 1.2-percent decrease in 100-series controlled buck hunt tags to 60,639 for 2023, while the 600 series antlerless hunt will see a 0.4-percent increase to 10,109 tags.
The other major hunt concept that ODFW introduced in 2020 was the General Season Antlerless Elk Damage Tag. These tags are valid for specific areas experiencing elk damage, replacing landowner damage tags in those areas during open elk seasons. A review of results shows that the concept has resulted in reducing the need for landowner damage tags statewide by 22 percent while increasing elk harvest by 27 percent in affected areas. ODFW plans to continue the General Season Antlerless Elk Damage Tag hunts, and possibly expand it into other areas as appropriate. However, OHA has asked that ODFW reevaluate this program in areas where elk are not meeting population management objectives.
In general, Rocky Mountain elk in eastern Oregon are faring well, as they have been for a number of years, with 22 of 29 wildlife management units at or near management objectives, though some prime units are down. Eastern Oregon’s elk population is about 71,150 – a little below the objective of 73,650 animals. Roosevelt elk populations in western Oregon are not doing as well, with an estimated population of 54,830 compared to the objective of 70,850.
Some units did not have elk herd composition data available for 2023. OHA is concerned that the workload for ODFW staff in some districts, largely driven by wolf management activities, has contributed to ODFW staffing issues and has hamstrung agency staff in collecting and analyzing big game herd composition data. These data are important for monitoring elk populations and critical for units not meeting objectives. Therefore, OHA strongly encourages ODFW and the Commission to prioritize the collection of these data and adjust management accordingly to meet elk management objectives.
Changes for 2024 include deleting three antlerless elk hunts, as they are no longer required due to the impact of the General Season Antlerless Elk Damage Tag. A controlled youth elk hunt will be added in the Interstate-Silver Lake units, along with a new muzzleloader hunt in the Sixes Unit in southwest Oregon. Controlled elk tags will be increased by less than 1 percent for 2024.
Difficult 2023 winter conditions in the High Desert that lasted well into the spring raised concerns about impacts on the pronghorn population, which is sensitive to environmental conditions such as weather. But the deeper snow that persisted in the spring was mostly in higher elevations outside of pronghorn range, and a good green-up as the snow melted helped improve habitat conditions. An increase in pronghorn populations in the Beulah Unit is prompting an increase in tag numbers for that hunt. However, a population decline in the South Wagontire hunt area will result in fewer tags there. At 2,072 tags, the number of tags available for 2024 is the same as for 2023.
Oregon’s pronghorn population has remained fairly stable for the past several years at 16,000 to 19,000 animals.
A significant increase in bighorn sheep tags – 24 percent over 2023 – will be available in 2024. That largely reflects the difference in herd health between Oregon’s two bighorn species, Rocky Mountain and California bighorns, and location-specific hunt conditions.
California bighorn sheep numbers are largely stable, although there are a few herds in the extreme southeastern portion of their Oregon range that are struggling a little. The total population is estimated to be 4,200 to 4,500.
The Rocky Mountain bighorn population in northeast Oregon is considerably smaller at an estimated 800 to 900 animals, and some herds continue to contend with respiratory disease problems. One of the major steps ODFW is taking to address the disease problem is their work with area landowners in the tristate area of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, through the Hells Canyon Restoration Initiative to finds ways to limit interaction between wild sheep and domestic sheep, which are the source of the respiratory diseases.
For 2024, there will be 122 tags offered in 30 hunts. That includes five Rocky Mountain rams in three hunts, and 77 California rams along with 40 California ewes in 27 hunts. The California bighorn sheep ewes account for the increase in tags offered for 2024. Six California ram tags and three ewe tags will be available to non-resident hunters. The California bighorn hunt, 548 Heppner Unit, is being cancelled due to low herd numbers and the difficulty in locating rams in the area.
While Oregon’s Rocky Mountain goat population, at around 1,200, is stable and even increasing in some places, four hunts will be eliminated in 2024 due to the continued impact of 2022 wildfires that resulted in some herd population declines.
For 2024, there will be 21 Rocky Mountain goat tags offered in 12 hunts. Two tags will be available to non-resident hunters.
Bear & Cougar
Bear populations are strong in Oregon based on ODFW’s monitoring that includes compiling the ages and sex of bears harvested for both spring and fall hunts. Based on criteria from the Oregon Bear Management Plan, bears are not being over-harvested if the overall median age for all harvested bears is greater than or equal to three years old, two years for males, and four years for females. Actual data indicated those harvest numbers in 2022 were four years, four years and five years, respectively, showing the bear harvest to be in the sustainable range.
With Oregon’s bear population well within harvest parameters, 146 more controlled tags will be available for 2024 than in 2023. That will be a total of 10,773 controlled hunt tags in 18 hunts. Hunts seeing increased tag numbers include the 762A Pine Creek-Keating-Catherine Creek Hunt and 731A South Central Hunt, where bear numbers are abundant enough to sustain increased harvest.
ODFW tracks cougar populations by monitoring mortality rates that include both harvest and non-harvest mortality. Based on that data, the current Oregon cougar population, which includes all age classes, is estimated at 7,068. That no cougar zones reached their mortality cap indicates that the population is continuing to grow. For these reasons, no changes for the cougar season or zone quotas are being made for 2024.
One big change that hunters can get excited about is the pending substantial increase in the size of the Minam River Wildlife Area in northeast Oregon, located about 30 miles northeast of La Grande.
This is a project involving ODFW, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, US Department of Agriculture Forest Legacy Program, OHA and other partners. It will add a significant addition to the current wildlife area through the purchase of 10,946 adjacent acres, expanding it to more than 15,000 acres available for public access, including nearly six miles along the Minam River and Minam River Trail.
Approval of Phase II of the acquisition project includes $3.5 million from the RMEF and $9.7 million from the Forest Legacy Program. As part of the deal, ODFW will pay fire protection fees and “in-lieu” of property taxes to maintain county tax revenue.
The acquisition will provide additional critical winter habitat protection for a herd of about 1,400 Rocky Mountain elk along with other wildlife species.
OHA contributed $100,000 toward this land acquisition.