State and BLM lands on Phillip W. Schneider Wildlife Area in Grant County will be closed to all public access from Feb. 1-April 14, 2012 and in future years. The winter closure began last year and is a cooperative effort meant to protect wintering mule deer as part of the Mule Deer Initiative , an effort to restore mule deer populations which have declined in Oregon and across the West.
All lands west of Foothill Road on Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area (La Grande) will also be closed to entry Feb. 1-March 31 to protect wintering elk. Wildlife areas Elkhorn (North Powder) and Bridge Creek (near Ukiah) are also closed to entry from Dec. 1 to protect wintering big game. (Elkhorn reopens April 11 and Bridge Creek reopens April 15.)
Mule deer and other wildlife naturally struggle to maintain energy reserves in late winter. Minimizing human disturbances should big game survival and their overall fitness throughout the year.
Motor vehicle use is already restricted on Phillip W. Schneider Wildlife Area. But more and more people are hiking the area during the sensitive winter time period, in search of antlers shed by deer and elk.
“Late winter and early spring is when mule deer are most vulnerable because their energy reserves are low,” explained Ryan Torland, ODFW district biologist for Grant County. “People and pets put deer on the move and use up energy reserves that could otherwise help them survive the winter.
By mid-April, deer will be recovering from the winter and starting to move onto their summer ranges,” added Torland. “And shed antlers can still be found on the wildlife area at that time.”
In its prime, nearly 30,000 mule deer wintered in the Murderers Creek Unit, but that has declined to an estimated 5,300 today. Severe winters, habitat changes that worsened conditions for mule deer and predation all contributed to mule deer’s decline.
The closure is one of a number of steps being taken to increase mule deer populations in the Murderers Creek Unit. ODFW biologists believe habitat is the biggest factor affecting mule deer. Juniper trees and invasive weeds like medusahead rye and cheatgrass have replaced bitterbrush, sage-brush and other forage that mule deer rely upon during the winter months.
ODFW is working with BLM, U.S. Forest Service and partner sportsman organizations like the Oregon Hunters Association, Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Mule Deer Foundation to improve mule deer habitat. Together, the groups have removed juniper trees on 3,221 acres in the Murderers Creek Unit, treated invasive weeds, planted shrubs and created food plots for mule deer. The habitat improvements should also benefit other game animals and wildlife species identified in the Oregon Conservation Strategy  as species in need of conservation.
In other parts of the state where Mule Deer Initiative efforts are focused, ODFW is reducing predator populations, increasing Oregon State Police presence, and reducing hunting pressure.