Temperatures never reached freezing for 28 consecutive days and hit as low as -23 in Baker County this past winter. The snow depth exceeded 18 inches throughout the county.
District Wildlife Biologist Brian Ratliff compared this year’s winter to 1993-94. “It came early, it lasted long and the snow kept accumulating,” he said. “We have had winters like this historically but not in the last 10 years.”
Early spring flight surveys of mule deer showed the winter took a toll on mule deer. Usually, surveys count fawn ratios (fawns per 100 adults) in the mid-30s. This year, 11 fawns per 100 adults on average were counted across the county with some units being as low as 8 per 100 adults. While the average winter loss of adult radio-collared does being studied in the Blue Mountains is around 8 percent, Baker County lost 32 percent.
The region’s Rocky Mountain elk fared better due to their larger size, so there are no reductions in elk tags. “We saw some elk mortality, as we always do, but it was not significant,” Ratliff explained. “Due to their size, elk can generate more body heat at less energetic cost and they can get thru crustier snow easier than smaller ungulates like deer and pronghorn.”
ODFW is reducing pronghorn and mule deer controlled tags in the units effected to conserve wildlife populations. Hunters in these units should expect to see fewer yearling animals (spikes and 2-points) this fall. (These age classes made up about 33 percent of Baker County’s harvest last year.)
Baker County pronghorn and buck tags will be reduced by 50 percent, and two doe hunts on agricultural lands will be cancelled. Union County tags will be reduced 35 percent. Malheur County tags will be reduced by 40 percent in the Beulah Unit and 25 percent in the Owyhee Unit. See the table below for the full list of hunts reduced and final tag numbers. (The Tag #s Now Available figures will replace what is currently printed in the 2017 Oregon Big Game Regulations.)
Landowner Preference tags will also be reduced.
Hunters who have already applied for one of the controlled hunts effected may change their hunt choices free of charge until June 1, 2017. Use the Controlled Hunt Application Change Request form found online and mail, fax or hand it in to an ODFW office (hunt choices cannot be changed through the online sales system).
While surveying big game herds in early spring, Ratliff even saw pronghorn on the frozen Snake River, a sight he’s never witnessed during 12 years as a wildlife biologist in the region. “The deer went as low as they could possibly go,” he said, referring to deer’s annual migration to lower-elevation winter range to survive the winter. “I saw them in places I’d never seen them before. But there was no forage for them that wasn’t covered by snow and it was just really tough on fawns.”
Ratliff says it may take a few years of good fawn production to bring back the population. The above-average snowpack and improved range conditions from all the water this year will help with fawn production and should benefit mule deer and other wildlife populations in the long term.