The end of a respected hunting tradition

The 2009 big-game hunting season will kick off next week with the death of one of Oregon's storied fall traditions — guys standing in line to buy their license and deer tag at the very last moment before the hunt.

The sea of uber-procrastinators who lined up at each Medford sporting-goods store on the eve of the general buck deer rifle season now have even more reason to put off the obvious.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this month did away with the license and tag sales deadlines for hunters, choosing instead to follow the lead of other states and sell licenses and tags right up to the last day of the hunt.

For decades, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife sold deer and elk tags through the eve of opening day, and banned tag sales after to prevent hunters from shooting an animal and then buying a tag to cover their tracks.

Now, hunters who pay a $6.50 extra fee and sign an affidavit stating they have not yet hunted during the season will be allowed to buy the general-season tag whenever it's convenient for them.

Also, hunters who draw controlled-hunt tags but forgot to pick them up by the deadline will still be able to buy the tag they drew, thereby side-stepping a slew of barroom jokes until someone a few stools down commits a worse foible.

The change was made to accommodate these people, along with those who accidentally buy the wrong tag for a hunt, or who buy the tag via the all-in-one SportsPac but fail to pick it up on time, says Larry Cooper, deputy administrator of the ODFW's Wildlife Division.

In other words, they rewrote the law for James Fears.

Well, not just James Fears ... but people like this 58-year-old Central Point man whose mind-fart over the date of the High Cascades deer rifle season earlier this month all but put him on the outside of one of September's most coveted blacktail hunts.

Fears drew a tag for the West High Cascades hunt and went to the Sportsman's Warehouse in Medford on Sept. 16 to buy his tag for the hunt that starts Sept. 19.

The only problem was, the High Cascades hunt was Sept. 12-19.

"I thought I was three days early," Fears says. "It was a complete screw-up on my part."

Then the clerk explained to Fears why he really wasn't completely screwed, just kind of screwed.

"I said, you gotta be kidding me," Fears says. "There's no way they'd allow that."

So he went to the ODFW's Central Point office the next day, signed the affidavit and paid the extra $6.50. With tag in hand, Fears was able to salvage one day of High Cascades hunting, though he didn't bag a buck.

That wasn't the case for Dan Ethridge, who saw the new program come one year too late.

Ethridge's 14-year-old daughter, Brita, drew one of 25 coveted youth antlerless elk tags for Aug. 1, 2008 through March 31, 2009, a hunt meant to help curb landowner damage problems in lower-elevation lands of the Rogue Unit.

You'd figure Ethridge wouldn't have to go too far out of his way to buy that tag.

As a senior technician working at the ODFW's Denman Wildlife Area, he walked past the tag-sale licensing computer every day at the office.

After a short vacation in early August, he moseyed over to the computer to by Brita's tag in mid-August.

The computer listed the tag as "unavailable." Ethridge checked the synopsis and felt that sagging feeling.

"I thought the hunt started in September," he says. "I really don't know what I was thinking. I spaced it."

Ethridge saved a few bucks, but still lost a pound of flesh.

"She took it a little better than I expected," he says. "I was more disappointed in myself than she was."

In the first two weeks of the new program, the ODFW sold 134 controlled-hunt tags and 283 general-season tags to late-comers, ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy says.

If the Oregon State Police had their way earlier this month, that number would be zero.

Top officers of the OSP's Fish and Wildlife Division feared that removing the tag-sale deadline would open the door for poachers who shoot deer or elk during legal seasons but without a tag.

Now, those so inclined theoretically could poach a deer in the morning, drive to an ODFW office in the afternoon, lie on the affidavit, buy the tag and go tag their poached buck as if it were all on the up-and-up.

While people like Cooper are trained to find ways for helping Oregonians who want to hunt, people like OSP Capt. Walt Markee are trained to think like criminals, and by nature bring a "What Would Poachers Do?" look at the equation.

"I think most of those people, if not all, who have used the program so far are law-abiding," says Markee, who oversees the fish and wildlife division. "My suspicion is that you won't see masses of violations. I think you'll see a couple of people abuse the system. Time will tell."

Though originally opposed to the change, Markee has put his WWPD? logic aside to think of how often legitimate people could benefit.

"You have to weigh the positives and the negatives," Markee says. "If there are 400 people who get to go hunting this way, and if they're able to take a kid with them, then all the better."

Though Fears is one of those who got to go hunting thanks to the new program, he still says ... no thanks.

He'd rather see the procrastinators like himself line up at sporting goods' stores on the eve of hunts rather than give even one poacher another tool.

"I just don't believe in this, myself," he says. "I'd rather see it go back to like it was.

"I could take a kick in the butt to remind myself to pay attention next time," he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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