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Go low to up your elk success

Rogue Valley elk hunters looking to improve on the region's 1-in-20 success rate ought to think about going low and on private lands where they're in the know.

As elk numbers decline and hunter numbers remain high on upper-elevation public lands, hunters should try to take advantage of the ever-growing Roosevelt elk herds on lower-elevation private lands around area cities.

"Most hunters flock to the Forest Service lands, and there are elk to be had," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "But you have to compete with a lot of hunters.

"If you can, try going lower," Vargas says.

The Cascades general elk season opens to bull hunters Oct. 15 and runs through Oct. 21 in the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units.

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. 12-15, while the second season runs Nov. 19-25.

The $46 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, down a hair from the 5 percent success rate in 2014.

Like in recent years, the rifle hunters' success rate equaled the 4 percent rate of archery hunters who bagged a bull in their longer season, which includes more hunting during the rut.

"It doesn't matter if you pick up a rifle or a bow, your success is the same," Vargas says.

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

But those who did find success in the Rogue Unit last year came out with good stories to tell.

According to ODFW mandatory-reporting data, 1,908 rifle hunters bagged 78 bulls during the seven-day season, down from 94 bulls the previous year. Only 19 of those elk were spikes, and 35 were five-point bulls or better.

The big-bull phenomenon was even more pronounced among bowhunters. ODFW data shows bowhunters bagged 37 bulls and seven cows in their hunt last year, with six spikes and 21 being five-points or better.

This year's hunt starts off with the promise of 22 bulls per 100 cows in the Rogue Unit. That's more than double the 10 bulls per 100 cows management objective for the Rogue Unit.

However, this year's herd composition counts logged just 23 calves per 100 does.

"That's a little lower than we'd like, but it's not alarming," Vargas says.

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.

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

ODFW biologists say hunters will have a better chance of bagging elk this fall on lower-elevation, private lands than on upper-elevation public lands. Mail Tribune / file photo