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Small landowners want piece of LOP action

Like many private timberland owners, Jeff Mullins plays an important part in helping rear Oregon's wildlife, and he'd like a little bit of extra hunting opportunity in exchange for it.

His patchwork of 56 acres near Rainier provides a year-round home to black-tailed deer and occasional Roosevelt elk, all more than happy to munch on his freshly planted cedars and other forage created by his regular plantings and thinnings, which make his land a veritable year-long critter buffet.

"On one (tract), every time I go there I see deer, no matter what time of day it is," he says.

Mullins would like to join the nearly 7,000 other landowners who get a pocket full of antlerless deer and elk tags each year as gratis for housing the public's wildlife and putting up with their crop damage.

But Mullins' biggest tract is just 22 acres, well short of the 40-acre minimum to qualify for tags under Oregon's Landowner Preference Program, known as LOP.

Mullins has petitioned the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to amend the state administrative rules, giving it the flexibility to provide unique landowners like himself with a way to get LOP tags despite missing the acreage threshold.

In Mullins' eyes, landowners with more than 40 aggregate acres — but not one contiguous 40-acre tract — should be able to receive LOP tags if their land otherwise meets the requirements and spirit of the program.

The petition seeks to have LOP requests from landowners like him considered on a case-by-case basis and not arbitrarily dropped because of lot sizes, provided all the other aspects of wildlife stewardship are met.

His proposal will be considered today when the Fish and Wildlife Commission meets in Portland. The commissioners can either drop the proposal or start working on language to change the rules.

"I'm convinced my management philosophy, techniques and practices very clearly offer excellent habitat and meet the intent of the LOP program," Mullins says.

But not everyone agrees.

The Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association believes allowing more landowners a shot at extra antlerless tags is wrong at a time when deer and elk herds statewide are in a decline largely blamed on habitat loss and predation.

The OHA hasn't taken a position on Mullins' proposal, but the group earlier this year voiced its concerns over antlerless deer and elk tag proliferation.

"If anything, we need to go in the other direction," says Duane Dungannon, the group's spokesman.

John Thiebes, one of the creators of the 30-year-old LOP program, says making exceptions for people like Mullins could lead to an explosion of the program.

"I always tend toward (as little) government as possible, but I've also been burned excessively over that," says Thiebes, a retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist from Medford.

"Once you start allowing exceptions on a case-by-case basis, where do you stop?" Thiebes says. "My gut feeling is leave it at 40 (acres) and let her go."

The program began at a time when Eastern Oregon was losing general-season hunts in favor of limited-entry hunts. The idea was to give landowners who were unsuccessful during controlled-hunt draws a chance to hunt their own property during controlled hunts in areas that encompass their lands.

It was also a way to offer some sort of non-monetary compensation for the losses they suffer from big-game animals on their lands.

Under the program, owners of at least 40 contiguous acres can get two antlerless deer tags and two antlerless elk tags good for controlled hunts in their areas.

The deal is so popular now that 6,825 landowners are active in the program.

Over the years, the commission has toyed with the idea of squeezing some landowners out of the LOP Program rather than adding some in, as Mullins would like.

Oregon's 40-acre threshold is already far smaller than other states with similar programs, such as California, which requires 640 acres for a deer tag and at least 5,000 acres for an elk tag.

Mullins says the size of the property is less important than what landowners do on it for wildlife. And for that, he says, landowners like himself deserve a shot at LOP tags.

"There are a lot of considerations for this," he says.

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