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Younger bucks might be in the cross-hairs

Western Oregon black-tailed deer hunters might be allowed to fill their general-season tags with single-point spike deer for the first time, and hunters could have the option for a lengthy general cow elk season to curb crop damage under new hunting proposals being considered for 2020.

Other changes proposed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife include consolidating 127 existing controlled hunts into 49 new ones, expanding some season dates and unit boundaries, and adding new late-season mule deer hunts and two mountain goat hunts.

The proposed changes, which will be detailed Friday before the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, are the most substantive in decades, and it’s the first overhaul of regulations since Eastern Oregon deer and elk hunts went from general to controlled, limited-entry seasons.

The biggest impact to hunters would be the proposed expansion from forked-horned to any buck with a visible antler during the general-season blacktail buck hunt, which sees more than 60,000 hunters annually.

The old limit harkens back to times when Western Oregon sported many anterless deer hunts, and it could spur more success among hunters, who generally average about a 20-percent success rate.

“They’re kind of young and dumb, so they might be easier targets, especially for people getting into hunting and youth hunters. It might also reduce pressure on older bucks, because once you shoot one, you’re done,” says Steve Niemela, ODFW’s Rogue District wildlife biologist.

While the change ought to create more successful hunters, it might not take a bite out of the overall deer population, because spikes have the highest mortality rates on their own, Niemela says.

“A lot of these animals are dying anyway, so when you include them in the bag limit, you’re not necessarily increasing the overall mortality rate throughout the year,” Niemela says.

The Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association has not yet taken a stand on the proposals, but the group opposed a spike-deer bag limit when it was floated by ODFW in 2014. It was never proposed to the commission, in part over the OHA’s concern that the change could lead to fewer mature and more desirable bucks down the line.

“Spikes are young and naive,” OHA spokesman Duane Dungannon says. “They’ll just stand there and stare at you with their yearling sister and mom. You don’t see that with (forked-horned bucks).”

To address ongoing elk damage on private lands, ODFW is proposing to create “elk de-emphasis areas” — including the Foothill Road and Sams Valley area, which see chronic elk damage — and sell general-season cow-elk tags to hunt those areas Aug. 1 through Nov. 30.

Hunters who buy that tag would need to seek access to private lands, Niemela says. Also, it would allow landowners experiencing damage to buy a tag or arrange for hunters without having to go through the landowner damage tags, Niemela says.

The tags would have no sale deadline, so would be available throughout the hunt. Also, they would serve as a hunter’s only elk opportunity for the year if bought, Niemela says.

ODFW will hold three public meetings in Southern Oregon in July to gather input on the proposals. They will be at 7 p.m. July 9, at the Gold Beach library, 7 p.m. July 11, at the Denman Wildlife Area conference room, 1495 E. Gregory Road, White City, and 7:30 p.m. July 30, at Elmer’s Restaurant, 175 NE Agness Ave., in Grants Pass.

The Grants Pass meeting is in conjunction with an OHA chapter meeting and is open to the public, Niemela says.

The commission is set to vote on the changes at its Sept. 13 meeting in Gold Beach.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Southern Oregon is known for big black-tailed bucks, and biologists are proposing to ease rules for hunting them. [Mail Tribune / file photo]