Coming off one of the strongest hunts in years, Roosevelt elk hunters in the south Cascades are heading into the season with a little more mystery than normal.
The bull ratio estimates that generate optimism among general-season riflemen aren't there this year, a victim of state budget cutbacks.
But it doesn't take a biologist in a helicopter flitting about the hillsides to know Jackson County is home to a good number of elk. But with degrading habitat in national forests, Western Oregon's apex fauna are continuing to move out of historic high-elevation habitat toward the Rogue Valley floor.
"We have strong bull ratios in the Rogue Unit, without a doubt," says Mark Vargas, the Rogue District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "What really effects our population is habitat. Can we grow elk, essentially, on people's pastures."
The Cascades general elk season opens to bull hunters Oct. 17 and runs through Oct. 23 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. 14-17, while the second season runs Nov. 21-27.
The $42.50 general-season tag allows hunters to take one bull elk with at least one visible antler.
Not that this definition comes into play all that often in the south Cascades, where success rates have plummeted to a point where all but a handful of participants see it as a week of camping and hiking with a rifle over their shoulders.
Last year's success rate in the Rogue Unit was 5 percent, up from 4 percent the previous year and just 3 percent in 2012.
The rifle hunters' success rate equaled the 5 percent rate of archery hunters who bagged a bull in their longer season, which includes more hunting during the rut.
With close to 4,000 bull hunters plying Jackson County's woods, that's a lot of bummed-out hunters.
But those who did find success in the Rogue Unit last year came out with good stories to tell.
According to ODFW mandatory-reporting data, 2,112 hunters logged more than 9,300 days hunting during the seven-day season, bagging 94 bulls. Only 17 of those elk were spikes, and 39 were six points or better, almost double from the previous year, the data show.
"It's always been that way," Vargas says. "We don't have a spike-only hunt to put pressure on younger animals.
"And people don't select for spikes," he says. "You see a herd of elk, you're going to select the bigger bull over a spike."
The problems facing local elk herds and those who hunt them are well documented. Reduced logging on federal lands, as well as aggressive fire suppression, have reduced elk forage areas. With less habitat, the elk herds are shrinking, while hunter numbers have held relatively steady for years.
That makes for a crowded feeling for those who don't backpack or horsepack deep into the region's wilderness areas.
Compounding the problem is the prevalence of elk on lower-elevation, private, agricultural lands, where they are not accessible to the general hunting public. Some of the most visible herds of elk in the region reside on small farms, ranches and orchards along North Foothill Road, in addition to the fence-crashing beasts of Sams Valley.
Some of the best, year-after-year successes come to hunters who venture far past the crowds, but that doesn't mean Rogue Valley residents with only a handful of days off to hunt elk can't hunt from home with success.
The best option for hunters is to hike well off the roads and into the backwoods favored by elk. Lands within the restricted travel-management area north of Shady Cove offer off-road opportunities for hunters tired of the congestion of the so-called "Firing Line" — the border between the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, where hunting is legal, and Crater Lake National Park, where hunting is banned.
Hunters are reminded that the traditional green-dot road closures in the upper Rogue River region go into effect the Wednesday before the season opener and run through the general season.
Hunters and others may drive only main forest roads marked with green dots. The road closure creates more huntable areas not marred by vehicle traffic, which elk try to avoid.
Maps are available at the ODFW office in White City and near main forest roads affected by the program.