By Duane Dungannon
“This is it,” I thought to myself as I crept along a decommissioned skidder road. “No more holding out. I’m going to take the first elk I see.”
It was the fourth day of a five-day, either-sex elk hunt in northeast Oregon’s Starkey Unit. Following Washington’s lead from 1989, Oregon elk managers had instituted a spike-only bag restriction for general-season hunting in much of the Blue Mountains of which the Starkey Unit is a part. It had taken my hunting party five years to draw a coveted branched-antler bull tag for the area. In that time, while we piled up preference points for Oregon’s limited big-game tag drawing, we were forced to settle for less desirable second- and third-choice, and general-season hunts.
As I packed that precious permit in my pocket, I was not about to part with it for anything less than one of the elusive branched-antler bulls that spike-only bag limits were supposed to be bringing back to the Blues. But it was Day 4 now, and none of the four hunters in my party had so much as seen an elk – not one hair. It was time to get serious.
As I picked my way through the damp, hip-high seedlings growing in what had become more of a trail than a road, I turned my 3-9-power variable scope down to 3 to afford me the largest field of view in close quarters. I couldn’t help but notice that the patchwork of amber larch trees and emerald pines and firs made the Blue Mountains look like they were garbed in green and gold, a pleasing color combination to a rabid Oregon Ducks fan.
“OK,” I thought to myself as I peered ahead through the light mist hanging above the damp woods. “If a cow crosses in front of me, I’m taking her.”
“Yeah,” the devil’s advocate in my head chimed in, “and when that big bull steps out next, you’d better have saved a round for yourself.”
I just kept walking. I’m not sure how far I walked; I walked until I could no longer see tracks. All I knew was that in recent mornings I had seen a lot of tracks lower on the mountain and sign so fresh it still steamed, but the elk that left them were gone by dawn. So on this day in this green-and-yellow wood, I took the road less traveled. It made all the difference.
I’m not sure whether I saw movement first or heard the noise, but suddenly I felt the presence of elk as a bull emerged from the timber to my left. I saw a massive rack bouncing above the tops of the taller seedlings.
“Oh, my God!” I remember thinking to myself. “Don’t screw this up!”
By the time I shouldered the rifle and found the elk in the scope’s crosshairs, the lone bull had stopped behind a short, fat pine upslope to my right, aware of my presence but perhaps not sure what or where I was. His antler rack swiveled back and forth like a ship’s radar. Nearly panicked at the thought of this trophy blending back into the forest without so much as launching a hopeful shot, it was all I could do to restrain myself from trying to squeeze a bullet through the tree boughs.
My wait was rewarded. He trotted out from behind the tree and into an opening, through which my .165-grain Nosler Partition found its way home. I was sure I had a solid hit, but as a rule, I don’t stop shooting at elk until they’re out of sight or I’m out of lead. When he hit the next opening, I hit him again. He momentarily disappeared from view as I chambered a third round, but when I saw him next, he was tumbling down the slope toward me, looking like some sort of runaway thrashing machine bent on reaping revenge on me.
Thankfully, the 6×6 bull hung up on a charred log just a few yards from me, and I had logged my own Blue Mountains elk success story – one typical of what elk management in the Blue Mountains is aimed at accomplishing.
Unlike the thick and steep terrain west of the Cascades, the Blues are more accessible and far more open, rendering resident elk more vulnerable to heavy hunting pressure than their coastal cousins. To maintain the bull-to-cow ratios and the number of mature bulls needed to achieve optimum elk populations in the Blues, only a relative few hunters will be able to bag branched-antler bulls each season. When hunters do draw a tag, they can expect a quality hunt.
It wasn’t always so. Pat Fowler, district biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Blue Mountains District, remembers what he describes as “the hunter chaos days” prior to the implementation of spike-only bag limits in 1989.
“We used to have 18,000 elk hunters in the Blues,” Fowler recalls. It was a low-quality hunt with a hunter behind every tree, and there was very low bull escapement. Post-season surveys would find only three to five bulls per 100 cows, and a 3-year-old would have been an ancient bull. Only 65 percent of the cows were being bred, and half of those were being bred late, which resulted in later calf births and lower calf survival. A lot of the time, you couldn’t even tell there was a rut going on in the fall.
“Now we have 4,000 hunters, and you can have a quality hunt,” Fowler adds, noting that bull ratios are as high as 15:100 and pregnancy rates among cows have increased dramatically. “The problem is, you have to shoot spikes, unless you draw a permit for any bull. If you get one of those, you’ll have the hunt of a lifetime.”
The lucky handful of hunters who drew permits this year for the Wenaha Wilderness and Mill Creek watershed stand a good chance of shooting bulls with 360 inches or more of measurable antler, according to Paul Wik, assistant wildlife biologist for the district. Wik says the Dayton and Blue Creek areas are also looking good for 2004. Private land may limit access to hunters in these two areas, so Wik encourages hunters who drew tags to scout early and scout often.
Washington’s Blue Mountain elk seasons offer opportunity for rifle, bow and muzzleloader hunters, but few opportunities to bag a branched-antler bull with any weapon. The general spike-only rifle season runs Oct. 30 to Nov. 7 in Units 145-154 and Units 162-186. A handful of rifle and archery tags are available for any bull in Units 154, 162, 169 and 172. A spike-only muzzleloader hunt that spans Oct. 2-8 is offered for Unit 172, and a late-season bowhunt for antlerless elk is held Nov. 20 to Dec. 8 in Units 178 and 186.
In the 15 years since the adoption of spike-only bag limits, Fowler
says, most hunters have recognized that the new regulations are good for elk and elk hunters.
“Having no adults in the population is not good management,” Fowler says. “You’ll never make everyone happy, but we have to do what is best for the elk herds, and this was definitely what was best for the elk herds.”
The greatest area of the Blue Mountain range is in Oregon, and that’s where most of the region’s elk hunting opportunity is offered. The outlook for elk in this area of Oregon ranges from singing the blues to nothing but blue skies, depending on whom you ask.
In the southwest end of the range, elk numbers are holding their own, while low calf recruitment in the northeast has greatly reduced antlerless hunting opportunities.
“We’ve had a large reduction in cow hunting opportunity in the last five years,” says Jim Cadwell, assistant district wildlife biologist in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s La Grande office. “When we have good calf production, we’re able to allow more antlerless hunting. But with the calf ratios we’ve had in this district and some of the other northeast districts, we will have a difficult time even maintaining populations.”
In Union County, for example, calf ratios dipped to 17 calves per 100 cows, a historic low, according to Cadwell, who adds that many wildlife management units in the northeast are now below management objectives for elk populations as well.
Northeast Oregon’s spike-only regulations and restrictive branched-antler bull harvest have increased bull ratios and the number of branched-antler bulls in units such as the Starkey, Ukiah, Heppner and Desolation over the past 10 years, according to Cadwell. That means it’s very likely that cows are being bred.
“Even though we’re getting branch bull escapement, we’re not able to recruit as many elk calves into the populations,” he explains. “So while the percentage of branch bulls is higher, overall numbers are not.”
Predation is taking a toll on elk calves. Bruce Johnson, an ODFW research biologist conducting an elk nutritional study in the Sled Springs and Wenaha units, reports that roughly half of the calves radio-collared in one study area during the spring of 2003 were dead one year later, and that only a quarter were still alive in the other area. About 80 percent of the deaths were attributed to cougars.
While cougar numbers are high in the northeast, Johnson notes that factors affecting forage quality such as drought and reduction in timber harvest could have an adverse affect on cow and calf nutrition and result in weaker calves more vulnerable to predation.
Hunters lucky enough to draw a tag for the northeast corner of Oregon should enjoy a good hunt. The Blues rise from sage flats scarcely 1,000 feet in elevation to alpine peaks topping 8,000 feet. In between, elk are where you find them. Some herds migrate as far as the trek from summer range near La Grande to winter range near Pendleton, while elk near Baker may simply migrate straight up the Elkhorn Mountains and back to the foothills above the valley floor.
Studies in northeast Oregon have shown that elk will do whatever they can to avoid people and roads, staying about a half-mile away from traveled roads. For this reason, the northeast’s wilderness areas and travel management areas offer hunters a chance to do what elk like to do – escape road hunters.
Hunters who do not draw tags in the controlled-hunt drawings have the option of hunting general seasons for spike bulls in a dozen designated northeast units Nov. 6-14.
Farther southeast in the Blues, the horizon looks a little brighter, according to Greg Jackle, assistant wildlife biologist in the John Day ODFW office. In the Murderers Creek Unit, for example, the management objective is 1,700 wintering elk, and ODFW surveys observed 1,790 this spring. (Those are just the elk they saw.) Calf ratios were at 21:100. ODFW staff proposed an increase in antlerless elk tags for some hunts in the district to keep elk populations in line with management objectives.
At the other end of the elevation scale, the Desolation Unit supports some 5,000 elk that spend summers there before dispersing down into adjoining units such as Ukiah, Heppner and Murderers Creek.
Elk at higher elevations in these units seek the sanctuary offered by deep, dark timber where it’s available, while those at lower elevations sometimes use topography for cover, hiding out in draws and on benches out of view from major travel routes.
It was on just such a hidden bench that my party stumbled on a herd of elk two years ago. After scouting 18 miles of road the day before the season, we were convinced that no elk had crossed that road in weeks. We were probably right, but they weren’t far away. All we had to do was get off the beaten path and find ourselves in the right place at the right time. We did, and two of us filled cow tags just minutes into the season. As the silence returned to the sage slope, we watched a pair of branched-antler bulls wander off into the sunrise, offering hope for the future of elk herds and elk hunting in this rugged region.
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