Hunters worry that state rules are adding up to dwindling populations

by: NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Oregons native black-tailed deer are dwindling in population, but whats causing the decline isnt easy to pin down.In the wooded foothills of the Coast Range, a chance sighting of deer goes hand-in-hand with the trickle of rainfall. But a number of forces, human and otherwise, are conspiring against Bambi and his brethren.

As hunters grab tags and head out for the hunt and outdoor enthusiasts try to soak up everything alfresco before the rainy months, they may likely ask the same question: Where have all the deer gone?

It’s a question biologists and researchers from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are trying to answer.

Don Whittaker of the ODFW said deer populations are struggling across the state. This is true for both black-tailed deer and mule deer, both native to Oregon.

Exact black-tailed deer numbers are hard to track because of their reclusive nature and thick forested habitats, but the population has dwindled in recent years.

Black-tailed deer are found west of the Cascade Mountains and according to ODFW estimates, there were 320,000 black-tailed deer in Oregon in 2004. ODFW's Michelle Dennehy said the department is currently working on gathering a better estimate of the historically illusive ruminant.

A variety of factors may be contributing to the declining deer population, including decreasing habitat and increasing poaching, parasites and diseases.

The decreasing populations have some hunters nervous.

It isn’t often hunters ask for fewer opportunities to hunt, but in a recent Oregon Hunters Association survey of more than 2,000 members, the majority said the season allowing youth to hunt female elk and deer should no longer include the month of August, when there is still a chance cows could have calves at heel. The 1,411 respondents also said no antlerless tags should be given in areas below the targeted management numbers.

ODFW officials say if hunters want to change the rules, there is an official process for doing so, but no one has approached the agency about taking action.

Roots in the environment

But that may not be enough to return the skittish four-legged ungulates to levels of abundance in western Washington County. Those days may be behind us.

But the true tale of the retreat of deer from the county’s western edge is a complicated one.

The root of it all may have started in the 1930s with the first of four forest fires that temporarily devastated the Tillamook Forest — the great Tillamook Burn.

The story people tell in the forest goes a little like this: In 1933, when the summer heat was at its hottest and logging was in full swing, equipment sparked a fire just moments before a forestry official arrived to inform the loggers it was no longer safe to work. If he hadn’t stopped for a cup of coffee he would have made it in time to prevent the whole thing.

That story may be a myth, but the Tillamook Burn was very real, burning 550 square miles during the series of wildfires throughout the 1930s and 1940s and up to 1951 in the Oregon Coast Range. The first fire alone devastated 240,000 acres.

While the fires defaced large parts of the forest, when the series finally concluded, the aftermath of the burn created the ideal situation for plants that deer love to eat. The reforestation process was slow, allowing brush to keep growing and deer to thrive.

Don Vandebergh of ODFW said many people compare the amount of deer they see today to the amount they used to see after the Tillamook Burn and before the reforestation process was completed, when the environment for deer in this part of the state was ideal.

In 1948, a bond measure passed to finance the rehabilitation of the Tillamook Forest. At the time, it was the largest reforestation project in the world, but techniques were also primitive compared to what forestry experts know today. Foresters and volunteers planted an estimated 72 million seedlings by hand and from the air. Lands once charred black came back to life, but the trees began to shade out deer’s favorite shrubs and the large blocks of uniform trees resulted in sweeping timber cuts. Deer soon found themselves with little food and then a burst of it.

In addition, the vegetation deer rely on responds well to burned areas, but today, controlled burning in the Tillamook Forest is not as commonly used as it once was.

More people, fewer deer

To prevent future catastrophic fires, crews put in a road system that now twists through the forest, making the terrain easier to access for firefighters, but also everyone else. The forest, once nearly the exclusive redoubt of loggers and wildlife, is now a destination for many. That’s putting strain on the biology of the wooded lands that dominate the landscape from the western edge of Washington County to the coast.

Chris Friend of the Tillamook Forestry Center has seen recreation in the forest grow significantly. “There is a lot of pressure from the Portland metro area,” said Friend. The woods of the Coast Range foothills are prime for hunters, hikers, ATV riders, horseback riders, campers, bikers and explorers. Friend said it is one of the most popular off-highway vehicle riding areas in the Northwest and the campgrounds are ideal.

Vandebergh said the increased access and increased use of the forest has likely had an impact on deer. Deer tend to avoid people and concentrated forest recreation displaces them.

Deer scarcity may partly be a result of the recreationists hoping to find them.

“Deer and people tend not to get along very well,” said Whittaker.

The increased use of the forest, construction of roads and homes, and the conversion of wild forest land for agricultural use, has contributed to their habitat loss.

But not everyone is reporting the same story of scarce deer.

In 2008 a young male deer adopted the Hagg Lake home of George and Ruth Dallas. Short-Timer, as he was called by George, sniffed at the couple’s door looking for toast, or maybe friends.

What he found outside was even better: a garden of ornamental flowers to nibble on. Short-Timer disappeared (after making a brief reappearance with a girlfriend) after a while, but Dallas said deer still traipse through his yard pretty regularly.

“My belief is that deer are a lot smarter than people give them credit for,” Dallas said. “I think they understand where the safe places are, where there are no dogs and where humans don’t harass them. I think they just learned that bald guy with the beard doesn’t hassle them.”

More people, fewer tags

If you want to complain about a deer — alive or dead — ODFW is the place to go. The agency handles road-kill, more common on busy roads, and general complaints, an average of 420 per year from 2002 to 2006. Most come from landowners who report damage to their gardens, landscaping and crops. Land that deer once roamed now belongs to property owners, not all of whom welcome the four-legged natives.

Landowner preference tags, landowners notifying hunters they can hunt on their land, kill permits and emergency hunts are legal options through the ODFW for landowners who want to kill deer damaging their property.

David Nemeyer, a longtime Forest Grove resident and the city’s fire marshal, has been hunting for 20 years and has had one successful season.

“It’s a tradition for so many, and it’s a way to get out and enjoy and respect nature,” said Nemeyer. “But I don’t trust people in the woods anymore. It’s all a product of too many people not knowing what they’re doing, concentrated in the same area and not having successful seasons.”

With the population of the Willamette Valley expected to double by 2050, deer will likely encounter more trouble with people — and the animal populations of Washington County and its neighbors will likely experience more changes.

The number of tags sold for the general firearm deer season has declined over the past decade, according to a 2008 ODFW study. And tags for female deer were down 10 percent last year. But the study also stated “the department does not believe hunting is a significant factor in the observed long-term decline of black-tailed deer populations in Oregon because most hunting is focused on bucks.”

According to Whittaker, the number of tags in northwest Oregon has dropped dramatically.

In any case, times have changed since an ODFW study in Tillamook County in the 1960s concluded that a fruitful habitat could handle 75 deer per square mile with a harvestable surplus of 23, and since Nemeyer could drive his truck through the woods with his binoculars and spot dozens.

“There are more and more people getting squeezed into a small area, and deer don’t want to be near you and I,” said Nemeyer. “As our population grows people blame the animals and say ‘They are in our backyard.’ No, we took their yard.”

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