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While last winter was incredible for skiers and snowboarders, it could prove to be a negative for deer hunters this fall.

Corey Heath does not mince words when he discusses the upcoming buck deer rifle season.

“It’s going to be a tough deer season because of the winter we had, based on (deer) populations,” said Heath, a Bend-based wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s not going to be easy for most folks out there. Hunters will see fewer deer in most of the units.”

Most controlled rifle buck hunting seasons in Central and Eastern Oregon start Saturday and run through Oct. 11.

The record snowfall last winter in Central Oregon led to high fawn mortality rates, according to Heath. That means fewer yearling-class bucks (spikes and forked horns) will be available for hunters to harvest.

Heath estimates that those bucks typically account for 50 to 60 percent of the harvest in the ­Deschutes District — which includes the Upper Deschutes, Paulina, North Wagontire, Northwest Fort Rock and Metolius units. This year, he said, they could make up only about 30 percent of the harvest.

The harsh winter could have a similar effect in the Ochoco District (Grizzly, Ochoco and Maury units), where over-winter fawn survival rates were reduced by 30 percent, according to the ODFW. And overall deer populations are down in both the Deschutes and Ochoco districts.

However, Heath noted a few silver linings for deer hunters: The recent rain and cooler weather should help stalking conditions for hunters, and buck-to-doe ratios are at or above ODFW management objectives in most Central Oregon units.

“This recent change in weather is going to help a lot, in terms of being more pleasant and making things a little quieter,” Heath said. “It’s going to help a lot, even getting it now, a week in advance.”

Heath added that older bucks will likely make up a larger portion of the harvest than in a typical year, perhaps giving some hunters a better chance at a trophy buck.

“But they’ll still be hard to get, just like always,” he said.

The most hunter success will likely be found in the Metolius and Wagontire units, Heath said. But deer numbers are below average in the Paulina, East Fort Rock and Upper ­Deschutes units.

Those units are all controlled, so hunters will need to already have a tag. Those who did not get a controlled tag can hunt the general Cascade buck season, which is west of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Santiam, McKenzie, Indigo, Dixon, Evans Creek and Rogue units. They must purchase a general Cascade buck tag ($26.50) by Friday to hunt that season, which runs Saturday through Oct. 13 and Oct. 21 to Nov. 3.

Some area closures are still in effect in Central Oregon from recent wildfires, including in the Three Sisters and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas. Hunters can check with the Deschutes National Forest (541-383-5300) or with specific ranger districts for areas to avoid during the rifle buck deer season.

Due to cooler nights and reduced fire activity across the region, federal agencies lifted fire restrictions last week, allowing for open fires, according to a news release from the U.S. Forest Service.

While ODFW officials are predicting a challenging buck deer season for hunters in Central Oregon, the outlook is brighter for the upcoming elk season. According to Heath, elk populations are stable to increasing in the Metolius, Upper Deschutes and West Fort Rock units, which are part of the general Cascade bull elk firearm season that runs Oct. 14-20.

“Elk populations and seasons are looking much better than deer, locally,” Heath said. “Elk survived last winter real well. Elk hunters in the general Cascade season should have a good season. Elk season is sort of a bright spot this year.”

Controlled bull elk seasons in Central Oregon are Oct. 25-29 and Nov. 4-12. Those units include Paulina and East Fort Rock, where elk populations are increasing as well, according to Heath.

In the Ochoco District, elk populations and bull ratios are at or just below management objectives in all three units, according to the ODFW. Calf ratios are down due to the severe winter, but elk are in good body condition and highly mobile across the Ochoco Mountains.

The Maury and Ochoco units offer the best chances for bagging a bull elk on public land, while the Grizzly Unit is mostly private land where access can be difficult.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,