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Bull elk numbers are good this year, but getting to them is the trick, with many animals on lower-elevation private lands, biologists say. [Mail Tribune / file photo]

Elk numbers good, if you can reach them

Rifle hunters are coming off their worst Roosevelt bull-elk hunting season since 2010, and they are facing the same conundrum that has dogged them for close to two decades now.

There are plenty of bulls out there, but more are behind fences than in the open forest.

"We have a robust bull population," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "Unfortunately, many of those are on private lands. The problem is trying to get access to private lands to get at these animals."

But it's not all grim.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is still home to enough elk to get hunters to believe the one-week general bull elk season is more than just a lengthy camping trip.

"We still have some large bulls and decent herds on national forestland," Vargas says. "We've had early success among archery hunters, so it's a good outlook for the rifle hunter, as well."

The Cascades general elk season runs Oct. 14 through Oct. 20 in the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units. The Applegate Unit, which sports only a light cadre of bulls, falls under the coast bull-elk general seasons. The first season there runs Nov. 11-14, while the second season runs Nov. 18-24.

The $46 general-season tag allows hunters to take one bull elk with at least one visible antler.

Last year's success rate in the Rogue Unit was 3 percent, the worst on record other than the 2 percent success rates of 2009 and 2010. Last year, 1,688 hunters logged 7,443 days afield in the Rogue Unit. Both numbers are significantly lower than 2015.

But big bulls create big dreams.

This year's hunt starts off with the promise of 30 bulls per 100 cows in the Rogue Unit. That's up from 22 bulls per 100 cows last year and triple the Rogue Unit's management objective.

"The bull ratio is really high," Vargas says. "Unfortunately, many of those are on private land."

Access to the woods could be at a premium this year.

Wildfires have led to public-access closures in large swaths of federal lands, including the entire Sky Lakes Wilderness Area and lands around Crater Lake National Park. Both are typically very popular attractions for general-season hunters.

While more elk are on private lands, most private industrial forestland remains closed to public access because of wildfire danger. However, continued cold, wet weather like hunters have seen this past week could improve public-access on lands that are currently closed.

The shift of Roosevelt elk from high-elevation national forestland to lower elevation private lands is not just a local phenomenon. Throughout the Cascades, elk continue to move off federal lands and into lower-elevation lands, requiring hunters to find private land access.

That means the most important part of the October hunt could be some summer time on a rancher's front porch.

"It's all about relationships with landowners," Vargas says.

Still, slightly more than half of Oregon is federal land accessible to hunters, unlike other states where virtually all big-game hunting is on private ranches accessed for fees.

"If you compare it to Texas, we're doing just fine," Vargas says.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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