|Is it possible for something to gain ground while losing ground?
It is, says the Department of Fish and Game's Region 1 office, if the subject is the status of deer herds across the northern end of California as this year's archery and rifle deer hunting seasons approach.
Against a backdrop of mature forest trees steadily crowding out deer forage plants, DFG wildlife biologists and game wardens say there are pockets of the north state that appear to have carried a few more bucks into the new millennium's first deer hunts.
"There is room for some optimism," said DFG Lt. Jerry Collins in southern Humboldt County. "I have been seeing more bucks and people are telling me they are seeing more," he said, echoing reports from Trinity County and western Tehama County.
The operative word, however, is "pockets." From the Cascade Range eastward, the optimism is a little harder to find.
"I haven't been seeing a lot of bucks and I've been getting similar reports from hunters who have been scouting for the archery opener," warden Jake Bushey said from his eastern Shasta County district.
Weather, of course, will remain a major factor in hunter success, the DFG said. Hunters plagued by hot, dry conditions over the past several hunting seasons will hope for cool, wet weather to stir deer activity and make hunting conditions more enjoyable. Without a weather break, shrinking water sources may become an important factor.
In the absence of storms, hunters looking for the usual downhill movement of deer near season endings may be disappointed, according to wildlife biologist Pat McLaughlin in Trinity County. McLaughlin said some hunters reported finding many bucks in the highest country of the Trinity Alps as the B-Zone seasons came to a close last year.
Fish and Game said an estimated 70,000 of the state's 150,000 deer hunters will take part in the pursuit of venison across 19 northern deer zones either during early archery seasons or the later rifle seasons or both. In 16 of the 19 zones, early archery hunting starts August 19. Rifle season openers range from August 26 to October 7, with one zone's special late-season hunt, G1, starting October 28.
Archery deer season in the small, southwestern Humboldt County zone B4 is open through August 13 and reopens for rifle hunting August 26. Zones C2 and C3 east of Interstate 5 between Redding and Mt. Shasta have an August 12-September 3 archery season.
Automated drawings have distributed all available tags for northeastern California zones X1-X6b and hunters have since gobbled up remaining tags for the late, special G1 hunt, held within eastern Tehama County's zone C4. At month's end, there were still 3,100 tags available for the four C zones and 44,900 for the six B zones.
Game wardens this year say they will be on the lookout for hunter trespass problems, for after-hour shooting, for the illegal and dangerous act of having a live round in the chamber of a firearm inside a vehicle and for hunters who fail to properly fill out deer tags for bucks they bag.
"We're always vigilant in the areas of night hunting and tag switching," said Lt. Collins, who added, "Saying you forgot to fill out the tag might be a good explanation to give to a judge, but not to us."
The law requires that deer hunters possess a current hunting license and a proper tag for their zone and that they hunt only from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset. After they bag a buck, hunters must complete the deer tag and attach it to the antlers of the deer.
DFG Region 1 wildlife biologists who are entering their seventh year of conducting structured, statistically driven herd surveys say the carryover of bucks for this season appears to have been good in areas such as western zones B1, B2 and B5 and that a shift to a later season for Siskiyou County zone X1 to make it coincide with its sister X zones should improve the kill there.
Conversely, low buck-to-doe ratios in western Siskiyou County have resulted in one week cut off the end of the B6 season and a prediction of a lower kill. Generally, the remainder of the B and C zones are showing little change in deer numbers while the northeastern X zones continue to slide.
What is behind the flat-to-declining condition of north state herds over the past 30 to 40 years is no mystery to Region 1 wildlife personnel. In short, thickening stands of mature trees helped along by a societal anti-fire conditioning are cutting off sunlight from the forest floor and the brushy plants that deer need.
"People equate the word 'forest' with heavy stands of trees. A forest has everything from grass to shrubs to oaks to conifers," said Dave Smith, wildlife biologist in Redding who has been observing the fate of north state deer herds for nearly 30 years.
"A forest is a process, not a static condition," Smith said.
DFG biologists believe that man's manipulation of north state habitats over the past 150 years through grazing, timber management and firefighting practices has changed the character of the landscape to the detriment of a high percentage of all wildlife species, including deer.
A pair of photos in the latest issue of the DFG big game newsletter "TRACKS" shows how brushy plants have disappeared and marginal-value juniper trees have become dominant on a piece of Modoc County habitat photographed in 1948 and again in 1998. Similar photo pairs from Siskiyou County appeared in an earlier issue of TRACKS.
In the north state's western habitats, fire suppression has continued for so long that "friendly" fires until the mid-20th century allowed to routinely creep through forests of productively mixed habitats are a virtual impossibility today because of a huge, dense accumulation of vegetation.
And if it's not firefighting preventing fresh starts for brushy plants many of which are dependent on fire to crack and germinate their seeds it's housing development that permanently removes deer habitat. And, if not housing or fire suppression, it's timber management practices that follow logging with herbicide spraying designed to kill brush and accelerate regrowth of tall trees.
"You find yourself wondering if it is possible to convince the public that a healthy forest is not all trees," said Smith.
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