Lower elk numbers cause tag changes

Cascade Mountains bowhunters, who will hit the woods en masse Saturday, will be the first of thousands of Oregon hunters to discover that their "hair tags" of old have now turned into "horn tags."

Tags allowing an any-elk bag limit — dubbed hair tags because they required only that the elk had hair — are no longer available for bowhunters on national forest lands in the Rogue Unit and elsewhere along the western slopes of the Cascades, where elk numbers are down.

Muzzleloader hunters also will see their one-elk bag limit shift to one bull elk on national forest lands. But perhaps the biggest group to lose their hair-tag status in the national forests will be hunters with disability permits who previously were allowed them to turn any bull-elk tag into an any-elk tag.

These changes mean the only cow elk shot from now on in places such as the Rogue Unit will be on low-elevation lands during archery and muzzleloading hunts, under damage-complaint status and small youth-only hunts around the Christmas holidays.

"And as far as we're concerned, we would have added youth hunts and everything else with that," says Fred Craig, president of the Oregon Hunters Association, which supports the change. "But we don't see the rules."

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission set these rules last summer to go into effect now following recommendations from the OHA and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists struggling to rebuild once-vibrant Roosevelt elk herds in national forests that dominate the Cascades' western slopes.

The bull-only hunting restrictions for bowhunters on national forest land is in effect locally in the Rogue, Dixon, Evans Creek and Indigo units. They are all wildlife-management units, where overall elk numbers are below what the ODFW calls "management objectives" — or targets for what the unit's habitat should hold.

While declining habitat on national forest lands is considered the main reason for declining Roosevelt elk numbers, altering hunting seasons and bag limits is one of the few tactics available to ODFW and hunters to reverse those trends.

"We consider this one step in trying to recover those herds," Craig says. "When herd numbers are way down, it's females you need to recover it.

"We have to conserve this resource first if we're going to have hunting in the future," he says.

The bans also include the McKenzie and Santiam units farther north. The bowhunters' elk season runs through Sept. 22.

The writing on the wall about western Cascades elk declining in national forests goes back to the 1990s, when cutbacks in logging led to a decline in prime elk habitat. Add aggressive fire suppression, and national forest lands have little opportunity to provide the fresh, young plant growth elk desire.

Over the years, biologists have seen a drop in cow-to-calf ratios, and now overall herd estimates are down in places such as eastern Jackson County's Rogue Unit, the hot-bed for Southern Oregon elk hunting, which is dominated by national forest land.

The entire unit is managed for an elk herd of 3,300 animals, but recent estimates put the overall herd at fewer than 2,800 elk, according to ODFW statistics.

Perhaps even worse is that elk distribution has changed, as well.

More elk have moved out of the national forests and into lower-elevation areas in recent years, creating elk anomalies such as the Foothill herd that regularly wanders inside Medford city limits.

Recent estimates put about half of the unit's elk in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, but they are spread over two-thirds of the unit. That makes elk densities relatively sparse on national forest land.

While all this has occurred, bull hunting successes have been dismal despite excellent bull ratios.

While archers are the first to live under these more restrictive rules, they are the least culpable in the Rogue Unit.

In 2011, no cows were killed by archers during bow season in the Rogue Unit, and just 44 were taken by bowhunters in the entire Cascades, ODFW statistics show.

"Most (bowhunters) I know are hunting bulls anyway," says Craig, a bowhunter from Grants Pass. "But some people will take anything they can get."

Those "some people," statistically, are disabled hunters.

In all Roosevelt elk hunts, 1,521 hunters with disability permits shot 264 cows in all rifle and archery hunts on Western Oregon slopes, with the lion's share during the general season when their permits turned bull tags into hair tags.

"The bottom line is, there will be fewer cow elk taken now," Craig says. "We pretty strongly support no antlerless harvest where herd numbers are below management objectives."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

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