A combination of high heat, wildfire smoke and tinder-dry forests is putting bow hunters to the test roughly halfway into archery season across northeast Oregon.
Mark Kirsch, who manages the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s John Day Watershed District Office in Pendleton, said a prolonged wave of scorching hot weather is likely causing deer and elk to lay low across the popular Mount Emily, Walla Walla and Ukiah big game units — making them more difficult for hunters to find and approach.
“They aren’t up and feeding. They aren’t active. Bulls are not rutting, so they aren’t calling or sounding off,” Kirsch said. “Just all those cues that archers use with elk to try and be successful really are curtailed.”
Not only that, but dry, brittle vegetation also means the woods are especially crackly for hunters trying to sneak up on deer and elk.
“Now you are hunting for animals that really are just lying down, doing nothing but listening for you,” Kirsch said.
It is a similar situation farther south in the Heppner unit, where district wildlife biologist Steve Cherry said last weekend was one of the hottest for archery season in recent memory. Even at the highest elevations atop Black Mountain and Arbuckle Mountain, temperatures still topped 90 degrees.
Despite the difficult conditions, Cherry said bow hunters are still managing to find elk in the mountains.
“Overall, the success rate still has been pretty decent,” he said.
General bow hunting season began Aug. 26 for both deer and elk, and will run through Sunday, Sept. 24. The first season for rifle elk hunting is scheduled for Oct. 25-29, and second season is Nov. 4-12.
The good news for hunters is that local deer and elk populations appear to have fared well following this year’s unseasonably cold and snowy winter. The same cannot be said for deer in Baker, Union and northern Malheur counties, where ODFW reduced tags by as much as half for some hunts.
In those areas, snow depth exceeded 18 inches in some areas while temperatures failed to break freezing for 28 consecutive days. Animals struggled to find forage for extended periods of time, which led to a higher-than-usual winter mortality.
That was not so much the case in Umatilla County, Kirsch said, where the weather gave deer and elk more of a reprieve to feed at their usual winter range.
“It was more sporadic here,” Kirsch said. “But over there? No relief.”
Greg Rimbach, ODFW district wildlife biologist in Pendleton, said spring surveys indicated deer and elk populations are healthy and in line with management objectives in the Mount Emily, Walla Walla and Ukiah units.
“I don’t think the winter affected this year’s hunting at all,” Rimbach said.
The Heppner unit also did not experience a significant die-off related to last winter, according to Cherry, though deer populations are noticeably down this year, which he suspects may be due to years of drought and issues with predation.
“We’ve had a lot of drought years and hot, dry summers. It hasn’t been greening up until later in the fall,” Cherry said. “Over time, those populations start to slide.”
Dean Groshong, Columbia Basin chapter president for the Oregon Hunters Association, said hunters are crossing their fingers for cooler weather, rain and snow in the mountains by elk season. He also emphasized the need for hunters to be mindful of campfire regulations to avoid potentially adding another big, destructive, smoky wildfire to the landscape.
Air quality is already at unhealthy levels across central and Eastern Oregon due to smoke from wildfires burning throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“I cringe to see what’s going to happen,” Groshong said. “It’s just not good for the animals.”
Campfires are currently banned due to extreme fire danger on the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests, as well as forestland protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry Northeast Oregon District.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.