Surveyors Say

Biologists find good posthunt muley buck numbers in many areas – but winter’s only half over.

Guess we didn’t get ’em all, and that could be a good thing for this coming fall’s hunts – provided this winter doesn’t kill too many bucks.

Wildlife biologists running aerial surveys of Northwest deer herds in the weeks after seasons were largely closed to hunting found antlered muleys at or near management goals in most units, and well above in at least two cases – northeastern Baker County, Ore., and central and western Okanogan County, Wash.

(NICK MYATT/ODFW)

In the former, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Nick Myatt says he found 27 bucks per 100 does on the Pine Creek Unit in early December – “one of the highest counts we’ve had.”

Late spring flooding knocked out the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road in places, and that kept some tagholders at bay, he says.

In the latter county, a very respectable ratio of 24 bucks per 100 does was counted, the highest it’s been since the early 2000s, and nine above the target.

“I for one am very glad to see it,” says wildlife biologist Jeff Heinlen in Omak. “It’s a nice number to have.”

It tops last year’s 20:100 and is the fourth highest since 1997. Only 2000 (27), 2002 (26) and 1999 (25) are higher. Low marks include 2004’s 14 – which followed a stellar hunt – and 2007’s 16, stats from WDFW’s 2009 game trends report show.

Interestingly, the ratio of bucks was the same in both the Methow and Okanogan Valleys.

“Usually, there is a difference between them when it comes to bucks and fawns,” says Heinlen, who has counted deer from helicopters in these parts since 2003.

The Okanogan side is warmer, lower and further away from the Cascade crest, while the Methow is higher, colder and snowier. It’s all good hunting with copious amounts of public land.

Heinlein points to a year and a half of beneficial weather on the deer’s summer and winter range, including a moist summer in 2009, a mild winter in 2009-10 and more moisture producing good forage conditions this past summer. The huge Tripod burn area on the hydrological divide between both valleys is also beginning to grow good grits for the herd.

Heinlen also counted 82 fawns for every 100 does, the fourth straight year it has increased, though it’s about average since 1996-97, when a murderous winter led to the three-point minimum that’s been in effect ever since.

IN EASTERN WASHINGTON’S other corner, surveyors found 16 mule deer bucks per 100 does in Blue Mountains counties.

That’s smack in the middle of the five-year average and what biologists hope to have after hunting season, according to Paul Wik in Clarkston.

It’s also five times as many as made it through some hunting seasons before antler restrictions, according to fellow bio Pat Fowler, who retired last month.

“I will expect similar hunting (this fall) to recent years,” Wik adds.

While the number of muleys counted in the Okanogan (2,800) was just 80 percent of the previous year, the tally in the Blues was up (3,700) thanks to expanded surveying. Wik says that this winter’s included Columbia and Garfield Counties to evaluate their populations as wind farms come on line.

He says there were an additional 543 whitetails seen.

The mule deer fawn count was 49 per 100 does.

VIC COGGINS tallied the same ratio of young’ns to mamas across the state line in Wallowa County, but his buck proportion was slightly lower.

The longtime Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist reports 13 antlered muleys for every 100 does, up one buck from 2009’s count.

The overall mule deer count, 3,087, was lower than last year, “but we flew that first week of December when we had a lot of snow. That can push deer into the timber where it’s hard to count them,” Coggins says.

Winterkill isn’t generally a problem on Wik’s side of the Blues, except in the Grande Ronde, but Coggin’s district is higher.

“It can be very serious for us. We can lose quite a lot of our mature bucks,” he says. “We’ve had more snow and several zero-degree periods, but those haven’t lasted too long.”

NORTH-CENTRAL OREGON has seen slightly milder conditions, and Steven George in Bend hopes the weather holds.

“The deer appear to be in real good shape still,” he said in mid-January.

George hadn’t finished all the math on posthunt surveys, but offered up an assessment of what was on the range.

“Generally speaking – and I’ve got the Metolius, upper Deschutes, Paulina and North Wagon Tire Units – buck ratios are up and fawn ratios are down just a little,” he says. “Some are above management objectives, some are below, but the trend is an increase.”

THAT’S WHAT Myatt has to say about his other Baker County deer herds. He says Keating, Pine Creek and Lookout Mountain all had buck ratios above goals while the Sumpter unit was below.

However, Sumpter’s fawn numbers were five to seven animals better than the other three. The districtwide average was 48 per 100 does.

“That’s not absolutely horrible, but I was expecting higher,” Myatt says, pointing to a moist summer that produced “a lot of groceries.”

IN NORTHEAST WASHINGTON, where whitetails rule, Dana Base doesn’t usually do a winter count, but this go-around has tried to survey the herd.

As part of the debate on whether Stevens County game units should come under more restrictive 4-point-minimum rules for flagtails, he’s trying to get a grip on just how many deer are there. His first method – driving the summer survey routes – didn’t work for a variety of good reasons, but he’s since gotten his hands on a $4,000 night-vision “instrument” from headquarters.

In the meanwhile, Base continues to call the herd “depressed” compared to its heydays of the 1980s, ’90s and even up until the mid-2000s. Very tough back-to-back winters, including one with snow and freezes into April 2008, hit the flagtails hard, and that’s reflected in data from a voluntary hunter check station on Highway 395 the past three falls. As many as 146 bucks came through before those winters; in 2010, only 52 did.

The snow and cold hit turkey populations too, but Base says he’s also seen the numbers of spring hunters wane since the early 2000s when it was The Thing To Do.

Still, birds should be available come April.

“The way things are looking, we’re going to have similar numbers to last year,” Base says.

A CHANGE IN counting techniques makes it hard to compare this winter’s data to the past in Ryan Torland’s upper John Day River basin units. Previous years were based on ground surveys, but this time he says ODFW counters took to the air.

Torland says they found buck:doe:fawn ratios of 15:100:60, 11:100:55 and 11:100:63 in the Murderers Creek, Northside and Heppner Units.

He terms the buck count in the Northside unit “a little lower than we’d like.”

A ground check in the rougher, higher Desolation Unit found 19:100:74, but that was based on a smaller sample, Torland says.

His district is not exactly prime winter range, but going into mid-January, he was pleased with conditions for deer. The area had avoided the cold temps and heavier snows of elsewhere, and fall rains triggered a nice little green-up, he says.

WELL TOWARDS CALIFORNIA, Craig “Fozz”  Foster in Lakeview is seeing a slow rebuilding of the deer herd in the northern Warner Unit from recent ratios as low as 12:100.

“It’s my own fault. I was not careful four or five years ago with my tag numbers and shot myself into a hole with a larger population than I actually had,” says the biologist.

The miscalculation was compounded by a couple years of miserable fawn numbers, but the latest survey found 60:100 as well as 18:100 bucks in the northern part of the unit.

The number of antlers is under the management objective of 25 bucks. But in Warner’s southern end, where a separate hunt with more tags takes place, the ratio of 19:100 is four above the goal, Foster notes.

How much mixing there is between the groups of deer – “They don’t come with an ‘N’ or an ‘S’ on their side,” he jokes – is hard to say, so he’s not entirely happy with the data, but the fawn numbers are good.

“We’re going to be extremely careful with our tags until we (meet the objective) numbers three years in a row,” Foster says of the northern area’s bucks.

BACK IN WASHINGTON, Chelan County bio David Volsen reports slight declines in the Mission, Swakane and Entiat Units along the Columbia. Three days of flying found 25 bucks and 74 fawns per 100 does, down from 27 and 86 in 2008, but the antler count is dead on for the posthunt goal.

“Overall, we have seen a slight declining trend in the population since its peak in 2003-04,” Volsen says.

Winter 2009-10 was weak across the region, and followed by good spring, summer and even fall foraging, most Northwest muley herds went into the cold months in good condition. But winter 2010-11 is a different story so far.

“If the current weather trends continue, we can expect to see greater overwinter mortality this year than last,” says Volsen.

“It’s one of the more significant winters we’ve had in awhile,” adds Myatt.

As we went to press, a mini Chinook was swimming through his district, melting snow off south-facing slopes, but there’s still a month and a half or so of winter ahead. Biologists will head out again in early spring to figure out how many deer made it through.

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