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Later season may help elk hunters

The week-long camping trip known as the general Roosevelt bull elk rifle season in the south Cascades will start six days later than last year, offering one of the few circumstances tipped in favor of the hunter over their quarry in Southern Oregon's famed general bull season.

The continued shift in elk numbers and good habitat from high-elevation national forest lands to low-elevation private lands continues to be the bane of bull-shooters taking part in this once storied general season, which now sees success rates regularly lower than 5 percent.

"One out of five hunters will get a deer, but it's one out of 20 or more who will get their elk," says Steve Niemela, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's assistant Rogue District wildlife biologist. "That's where we recognize a problem with herd numbers on national forest land."

But thousands of hunters still will head to the woods with the intent of bucking that trend — hoping to bag the biggest big-game animal Western Oregon has to offer.

The Cascades general elk season opens to bull hunters Oct. 18 and runs through Oct. 24 in the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units, which constitute Southern Oregon's general-season haunts.

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. 15-18, while the second season runs Nov. 22-28.

Those opening dates are all six days later than last year and one of the latest under relatively new state regulations that call for the bull hunt to open this year on the third Saturday after the start of the general deer season. The old rules saw the bull season open on the third Saturday of October.

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 4 percent, up from 3 percent the previous year. The Dixon Unit also came in at 4 percent, meaning switching sides of Highway 62 in the Union Creek area didn't help or hurt hunters' chances last year.

The Evans Creek Unit saw an 8 percent success rate, with much of it on private land.

With close to 4,000 bull hunters plying Jackson County's woods, that's a lot of bummed-out hunters.

But 23 Rogue Unit hunters and another 20 Dixon Unit hunters bagged a six-point or larger bull last year. The chance of joining that club, and the aura of Elk Camp, keeps hunters heading to the woods with hopes of wrapping their tag on a tine this fall.

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.

"All those little valleys seem to have their own pockets of elk that creep around private land, and people do shoot them," Niemela says. "Just not a lot of them."

But preseason is all about promise, and the Rogue Unit of eastern Jackson County is sporting another year of high bull ratios that likely offer more hope than they should.

This year, the unit has an estimated 36 bulls per 100 cows, nearly four times the 10 bulls per 100 cows for which the unit is managed.

But it's likely inflated, in part because of the helicopter counts that make it difficult to differentiate cows and calves when counting on private lands because biologists don't want to spook the herds to count them like they do on national forest lands.

"There aren't 36 bulls per 100 cows in the Rogue Unit," Niemela says. "That's too high. That's why we end up with these good bull rations, but you still end up with a 3 percent success rate."

Some of the best, year-after-year successes come to hunters who venture far past the crowds, but that doesn't mean the Rogue Valley resident 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.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

This year's general Roosevelt bull elk rifle season in the south Cascades will run Oct. 18-24.