State wildlife officials hope to help black-tailed deer thrive in the ever-changing woods of Western Oregon. - Mark Vargas

Blacktails: A look at the big picture

EAGLE POINT — Growing up exploring the wilds around his rural Eagle Point home, Mark Vargas couldn't feed his teenage fascination with black-tailed deer fast enough.

Elusive. Secretive. Nocturnal. Blacktails quickly became an obsession of the young Vargas, who chased blacktails any and every way he legally could.

"Blacktails have always fascinated me," says Vargas, 44, now the wildlife biologist for his hometown woods within the ODFW's Rogue District.

"Everything about them always appealed to me," Vargas says. "Hunting them. Just finding them. As a kid, I used to go out just to take pictures of them."Now Vargas and his fellow state wildlife biologists in Western Oregon are looking to discover the big picture of blacktails that has eluded them for decades.

The ODFW has assembled its first-ever draft management plan for black-tailed deer in hopes of getting its collective arms around the animal and eventually creating better paths for helping blacktails thrive in the ever-changing woods of Western Oregon.

Among many goals, the draft sets out to discover where and how to best protect and improve blacktail habitat on public and private lands and discover the true impacts of elements like disease and road-kill patterns on herds.

But perhaps the most challenging aspect of the draft is a proposal to finally get true population estimates — both locally and west side-wide — as well as how many deer are joining the herds each year along with how many, and how, they die.

To do so, Oregon's 72,000 blacktail hunters would play a key role.

The draft calls for requiring that hunters supply a tooth from every blacktail they kill over a five-year period to help researchers develop computer models for predicting blacktail populations.

"Getting teeth from hunter-killed deer will give us more precision in working those estimates," says Ron Anglin, the ODFW's Wildlife Division administrator.

The estimates would help develop management objectives for deer populations in Western Oregon wildlife management units similar to those for Eastern Oregon's mule deer. They also could lead to fine-tuning of various hunts, and help point biologists toward possible changes — either expansions or contractions — of the general seasons now on the books.

Oregon's new mandatory reporting of hunting success supplies the sex of the deer killed as well as when and where the animals were shot. The teeth are needed, Vargas says, to discover the ages of when these animals are killed.

Mailing in a tooth or dropping them off at sporting-goods shops will provide that data, Vargas says.

A volunteer drop-off for a research project in southwest Oregon earlier this decade enticed just 5 percent of hunters to send in their teeth.

Hunters long frustrated with declining blacktail herds and hunting success could be willing participants despite Oregon's steeped don't-tell-me-what-to-do tradition.

Just watching black-bear hunters begin their mandatory check-in of hunter-killed bear heads has opened a few eyes of what the future might bring.

"I think they might be ready (to comply)," says Duane Dungannon, spokesman for the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, which is the state's largest hunting organization.

"If those envelopes are presented with deer tags, I think they can get the kind of compliance like they get from bear (hunters)," Dungannon says. "But they'll never get 100 percent."

Getting anything certainly is better than what Vargas and others have now.

Since blacktails are so elusive and hide well in the dense Western Oregon forests, surveys are imprecise.

A 2004 estimate pegged the blacktail population at 320,000. Locally, Vargas doesn't even bother with a population estimate, relying on indexes of buck and fawn ratios to gauge trends, but little else.

Mining the draft's 59 pages does provides a few eye-poppers.

Tooth samples taken in 2001-02 show that does can live up to 15 years, but bucks rarely get past age 9.

In southwest Oregon, coyotes and bobcats are the primary predators on fawns.

Southwest Oregon poachers far prefer Roosevelt elk to deer. A study on radio-collared deer and elk shows that, of known cause of death among radio-collared deer here, only 7 percent were poached. That compares to a 42-percent poached rate among radio-collared cow elk in the same area.

Due to the unique migratory traits in Rogue Valley-area blacktails, road kills represent enormous losses. In 2005, for example, 1,036 were reported to, and picked up, by county or state employees in those two counties.

"The bottom line is, more people and more roads, then more chances for collisions," says Vargas, who helped write the draft. "How you get around that is hard to say."

Vargas still hunts blacktails in some of his old Eagle Point-area haunts. And he still photographs them as well, mostly with infrared cameras capturing images of bucks and does on migration trails each fall in the upper Rogue River drainage.

"It's a species that a lot of people have a very difficult time hunting or pursuing either with a gun, a bow or a camera," Vargas says. "They're so elusive.

"This plan should help us understand them better," he says.

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