Elk-camp talk turns to conspiracies

Cascade general-season elk hunters remain so mystified as to why they never reach the 5 Percent Club that a stubborn few continue to look skyward for an answer to all that fails them.

Perpetual frustrations as to why only 1 out of 20 general-season rifle hunters bags a bull each October is just the right type of primordial ooze to hatch an annual round of conspiracy theories as to why so few elk are killed here each fall.

It can't be that elk hunters outnumber elk in Jackson County. Or that walking forest roads expecting to find a big bull is as likely as trolling Match.com expecting a quick date with Jessica Simpson.

It's gotta be those damn Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists raining rock salt — or bags of flour or fire crackers — from the sky just before Opening Day to break up the Roosevelt elk herds, all intended to minimize hunter success.

That's the chatter that has resurfaced yet again this fall as those who don't shoot a bull start shooting THE bull around super-sized campfires and adult beverages.

"You hear grumblings about that every year," says Steve Nicovich, an Eagle Point hunter who spent a tepid week of elk-camping in the Lemolo Lake area of Douglas County. "It's been pretty slim pickings with the weather, so people have to talk about something."

In a cell-phone interview from his elk camp, Nicovich says the bios-breaking-up-the-herd again has been a regular mantra among the failed masses this month.

Undoubtedly, somebody knows someone who saw the black helicopter hover just above the treetops, then heard the firecrackers or other hazing devices tossed out to spook the elk and turn everyone's hunt into a week-long camp-out.

"People in my party eat that up like biscuits and gravy," Nicovich says. "I just shake my head."

The story changes, yet it's always the same.

"This year it was a plane and cracker shells," says Steve Niemela, an ODFW biologist who heard the same yarns this past week while checking hunting camps during what likely shaped out to be a season in which success was down from last year's five-percent rate.

"I'm not even exactly sure what cracker shells are," he says.

Niemela didn't hear that the shells — a varmint-hazing device shot from guns — were fired from helicopters. At least, he says, he's not sure.

"They're so bizarre, it's hard to keep them straight," he says.

Bizarre doesn't come close.

In the early 1990s, the conspiracy theorists had the same black helicopters, but it was sacks of flour that rained from the sky.

Apparently, the flour had a shelf-life of five minutes and the bags were made of instantly dissolved burlap because no evidence of flour or bags has ever made it out of the woods.

"The flour has always been my favorite," Niemela says.

But that's nothing compared to the Mikita Myth.

In this one, ODFW crews head to the skies before the season armed with saws. When they find a big bull, they somehow rappel down and capture it, then whip out their saws to hack off the antlers so the bull can't legally be shot by rifle hunters.

"The ol' 'Cut The Antlers Off' myth,' " Niemela says.

Like all good myths, there is a microgram of reality somewhere in there. In this case, it's the saw.

On rare instances when agency biologists are capturing and relocating elk, they cut the antler spikes off before they are transported, Niemela says. It's done so the spikes don't gore other elk in transport, he says, and nothing else.

"Say that and we'll get people who say, 'Aha! It is true,' " Niemela says.

The funny thing is, the motive and the methods attributed to biologists during these elk-camp rants don't make sense.

The only time and place Oregonians don't seem to believe that hunters are the ODFW's most favored constituents is in Jackson County woods during a slow elk season. Everywhere else, agency biologists are perceived as kow-towing to hunter wishes, keeping hunters happy while trolling for donations from their organizations.

Besides, breaking up herds would get the bulls on the move and push them away from tough-to-access habitat and into the paths of hunters.

If anything, it would improve hunter success.

Instead of complaining about it, maybe hunters should lobby for it.

The truth here is far more simple than any of the suspected scenarios.

From the grassy knoll in Dallas to Apollo landings on a Hollywood sound stage, Americans love conspiracies.

"Why do they keep talking about dispersing the elk?" Nicovich says. "Why do they think there are aliens at Area 51?"

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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