Among hunters, they are called "hair tags," and they represent a world of choices for archers and muzzleloaders who routinely get them in Roosevelt elk hunts in the west Cascades.

Among hunters, they are called "hair tags," and they represent a world of choices for archers and muzzleloaders who routinely get them in Roosevelt elk hunts in the west Cascades.

These tags are good for "one elk," meaning those taking part in archery and muzzleloader hunts can ply the woods for that branch-antlered bull they've always sought — but they can also shoot a cow elk for meat should one present itself.

All it needs to be legal is elk hair. But the amount of elk hair in the Cascades is dwindling, and with it might go the hair tag.

State wildlife biologists this spring plan to float a cluster of possible cutbacks to almost all cow-elk hunting on west Cascade slopes, reducing hair tags to bull elk-only tags beginning in 2013 to address declines in Roosevelt elk numbers from Washington to California.

Proposals will include changing the one-elk bag limit for archers and muzzleloaders into a one-bull elk limit. The same change could apply to thousands of hunters with disabilities permits that allow them to shoot a cow elk with a bull-elk tag.

The changes could apply to entire wildlife-management units along the west Cascade slopes, which locally includes the Rogue, Evans Creek and South Dixon units, where elk numbers and hunting success has dropped significantly in the past decade.

It could be pared to include just national forests, allowing hair tags to apply on private land or Bureau of Land Management land. It would not affect coast-elk hunts.

If adopted, it could leave just a handful of youth-only hunts and specific damage-related tags on private property as the only cases in which cow elk could be taken on west Cascade slopes after this year's seasons.

"This is something we've been wrestling with over the years," says Mark Vargas, the Rogue District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We're going to be throwing this out as a concept.

"When you've got a population that's not healthy, you have to watch your antlerless harvest," Vargas says. "This would put less pressure on them."

Some version of these proposals will be in a suite of big-game hunting proposals for 2013 that ODFW will make public in April.

After public comment on the proposals in May, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider the 2013 hunt packages during its June 7-8 meeting in Salem.

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 the Rogue Unit of eastern Jackson County.

The entire unit is managed for an elk herd of 3,300 animals, but recent estimates put the overall herd at about 2,800 elk, Vargas says.

"The overall numbers have been declining for a lot of years," Vargas says. "It's not like they're going extinct, but you'd like to have them higher."

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 like 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, Vargas says.

"So elk densities are far less," he says.

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

The Rogue Unit is managed for a herd composition of 10 bulls per 100 cows. It's eclipsed that every year for the past decade and has more than doubled it six of the past 10 years.

But bull-shooting remains low, with success hovering around 4 to 5 percent. Double that and bull ratios could still hover around the objective.

"It's not a bull-ratio issue," says Tom Thornton, ODFW's game program manager. "Reducing bull hunting would have little effect on the elk population decline on national forest lands."

That puts hair tags right in the cross-hairs.

"It's a concern we've had for a while, and these are the last seasons left for an anterless component in the bag limit," Vargas says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email Follow him on Twitter at