News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Winter closures protect deer habitat

Deer in Sisters are like those relatives who overstay their visit. They are charming and lovable for a few days and then — well, we’ve all been there. Deer are cute and endearing until they start demolishing our garden or dismantling tree bark. It’s been said that in Sisters nobody owns their property — they just rent it from the deer.

Now it’s December and once again time for winter range closures that put limits on where we can travel by vehicle in the forest. We grouse about not being able to get onto our usual Forest Service roads, the ones to our favorite trails, or secret viewpoints or fishing access. The reasoning behind the closure tells us we have to get over it. Of course, the Forest Service isn’t putting it like that. They do make it clear, however, that from December 1 to March 31 we need to change our thinking and habits. And for good reason. Wildlife habitat is a big part of the Sisters ethos and is to be preserved, we tell ourselves.

“Winter range is habitat deer and elk migrate to in order to find more favorable living conditions during the winter. Winter range is found predominantly in lower elevations of Central Oregon and is extremely important to mule deer survival. Winter ranges usually have minimal amounts of snow cover and provide vegetation for forage, hiding cover, and protection from the weather. In Oregon, mule deer migrate, often long distances, to lower elevations to escape or minimize exposure to snow cover,” managers of Deschutes National Forest say.

Designated winter closure areas are essential to the survival of wildlife. When people or their animals enter closed winter range, wildlife is forced to move to new locations. This retreat requires animals such as deer and elk to use energy they cannot spare. This leads to a weakened condition, which can have a direct effect on the animals’ ability to fend off disease or predators and can lead to reproduction problems.

Some high-use recreation trails go through or directly along the edge of these closure areas. It is important to stay on the trails and keep pets leashed to minimize any impact to our native wildlife. Some high-use trails, a very small number, have leash requirements around the trailhead and the beginning of the trail not only to protect wildlife but to decrease the chance of user conflicts as well.

Growth in Sisters Country puts more pressure on our wildlife neighbors. Trail use has exploded. With the stellar work of Sisters Trail Alliance, we draw hikers, bikers, and equestrians from all over Central Oregon and the Valley. Bend, bursting at the seams, has a good trail network as well, but their population growth, fastest in the state, drives more of their outdoor enthusiasts to our woods.

Most of the closures are aimed at aiding mule deer populations. Between 2004 and 2021 herds have decreased by 56 percent. The Metolius range is 46 percent below objective and Upper Deschutes is 60 percent below target. Populations are decreasing roughly 10 percent per year.

For gardeners and orchardists, fewer deer may at first not sound so bad. The deer would probably disagree. Area all the forests in Sisters Country suddenly shut down to vehicles for four months? Not even close. The most affected area is in what is known as the Tumalo Travel Management Area and is primarily the east side of NF Forest Road 16 (Three Creeks Road) moving southeasterly and entering

BLM land. There are maps on DNF website, but most of us will rely on the bright yellow signs posted at the start of a road closed for the winter. They are hard to miss, rangers remind us, and compliance is not optional.

It’s not only deer and elk catching a winter break, some of Central Oregon’s most popular trails, like Dry River Canyon, are closed from February all the way through August to protect raptor nesting.

As would be expected, Forest Service and BLM workers cannot maintain trails during the winter when snow typically covers the paths. Likewise for the many volunteers who take on an ever-increasing share of that burden. That won’t keep most Sisters trail users at home. Just the opposite for many.

Take precaution when communing with nature over winter. The most effective way to prevent mishaps is to adequately prepare for the trip. Knowledge of the area, weather, terrain, limitations of your body, plus a little common sense can help to ensure a safe and enjoyable outing.

For a particularly satisfying trail that gives a close up view of winter range herds – deer and elk, get on the Alder Springs trail managed by Crooked River National Grassland. Remember, we are talking only motorized vehicles for winter closure areas. You can still hike or bike in.


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