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Your grandfather’s elk hunt revisited

A return to elk hunting in November is aimed at improving success
Mail Tribune / file photoODFW hopes a November elk season will rekindle interest among hunters.

Southwestern Oregon elk hunters who would normally be starting to sight in their rifles and pack up their elk camp necessities this week need to put their rituals on hold, as they are about to go back in time.

The mid-October general season hunt that split the general deer season for the past three decades is no more, giving rise to a replay of a November hunt your grandfathers have told you about.

This year, the general Cascade bull elk season is headed back to its November roots in hopes of reversing years of poor success rates and restoring what once was one of the last great general-season hunts in Oregon — campfires, tracking snow and all the accouterments of the elk hunts your grandfather laments losing.

This year’s season runs Nov. 6-12, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists hope it rekindles the allure it once had in the high country of Jackson County.

“Hopefully it will be a more attractive hunt to get people back, meeting in elk camp, have that fire and have that camaraderie,” says Steve Niemela, ODFW’s Rogue District wildlife biologist. “And maybe some snow to move elk around, improve tracking and hopefully lead to a better harvest.”

Some Southern Oregon Roosevelt elk hunters can recall a time three decades ago when the general rifle season was in November and, oh, how the field tilted their way.

Wildfire restrictions gone. Tracking snow usually on the ground, instead of the October forest that sounds like walking on Corn Flakes. And big bulls close to the rut, making their sex-crazed brains easier to fool in the woods.

One in 10 general-season hunters bagged a bull most years. But bull ratios suffered, so the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife pushed the season into mid-October, fragmenting the general blacktail buck-deer season, but it was done to allow more bulls to escape the November season and strengthen the herds.

In the short term, it worked. Bull ratios grew and hunting success was never better than in the early 1990s.

But elk patterns changed. While bull ratios grew to as high as 30 bulls per 100 cows in 2017, elk gradually moved out of Forest Service lands and now they dominate lower-elevation lands like pear orchards. Success rates dipped to as little as 2% in 2009 and 2010. As recently as 2016, it was 3% success.

The great general elk season had turned more into a week-long camping trip than a chance to hang an animal in camp.

That means an adult hunter buying a $34.50 hunting license and $49.50 bull-elk rifle tag has the statistical expectation to shoot one bull in a lifetime. Not the kind of math that gets hunters excited.

But the move was intended to improve bull ratios that were often below the benchmark of 10 bulls per 100 cows.

While the move did achieve its target — bull ratios are historically strongly above that annually — it did whittle away at hunter interest.

Niemela says the Rogue Unit in the early 2000s sported around 2,700 hunters. The past five years, the average has been about 1,500 hunters, he says.

“You can see why,” Niemela says. “When the success rate gets low, people lose interest.”

But there’s reason to regain that interest with the November season.

Already wildfire restrictions are moderate and another good rain or two in October could wash fire restrictions away.

Bull ratios in the Rogue Unit entering this year are at 12 bulls per 100 cows. Not as good as the 15-bull ratio of the past five years, but still plenty good, Niemela says.

“Even though the herd as a whole has declined, the ratio of bulls is still strong,” he says.

Niemela says the shift is not expected to generate any negative biological impacts to area elk, but it could produce a positive impact on hunter enthusiasm.

While the season has moved, the traditional travel-management area closures have not.

Also, elk hunters need to realize they’re not the only ones in the woods during that week.

The juvenile deer season will be in place, so there will be kids hunting bucks at that time.

Niemela says the overlap creates a chance for a new family outing — dad stalking bulls with junior in tow looking for a buck.

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