WENATCHEE — For a while, nasty fires meant deer hunting in Chelan County was no sure thing.
But the flames have since been trapped by fire crews, and last week, ranger districts and firefighting coordinators reopened access to some key wildland ranges around the county. That means the start of mule deer season on Saturday won’t force North Central Washington hunters to range too far from their accustomed camps for game.
But hunters will have to take special care, said Mick Mueller, until this week the information officer for the Wenatchee Complex fire efforts. Burning restrictions are still in place, and forests remain tinder-dry.
“We know that hunters are pretty much hardwired to have open fires. That’s what they’re used to — it’s cold at night. This year, it’s so different; it’s like 1994,” Mueller said, referring to one of NCW’s worst fire seasons on record.
“We are just not used to these conditions, and a small fire can take off to become a large fire in a very short period of time,” he said.
Safety closures shut down roughly 1,200 square miles of wildland territory after the fires began Sept. 8, as well as road and trail access to others. Much of the land closed included winter range for mule deer and elk.
The situation was worrisome for hunters — many of whom bought their state licenses as early as last December. Jon Gallie, biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wenatchee office, said he was fielding calls from hunters worrying that the season has been called off.
“No hunting seasons have been closed,” Gallie said. “What we have is access closures.”
Last week, the U.S. Forest Service reopened major access points to outdoor use, and wildlife biologists said the hunting outlook for reopened areas remains strong.
While the fires burned large swaths of land, only about 8 percent of the winter range for deer and elk was affected, said David Volsen, wildlife biologist the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s District 7, composed of Chelan and Douglas counties.
For instance, in the popular deer and elk hunting territory from the Colockum north to the Wenatchee River, about 55,000 acres burned, with only 10,000 of it within the animals’ seasonal territory.
That should mean little change in herd behavior in the coming hunting season, Gallie said. As snowfall gathers at higher elevations, the mule deer and elk move downhill for forage.
“We’ve already had reports of deer seen within the burns, so they are seeking out the little green regrowth that’s already occurring,” he said.
The county’s mule deer population was thought to be healthy prior to the fires’ outbreak, with a high ratio of adult bucks and nearly 29 bucks per 100 does, according to Fish and Wildlife estimates. Hunters brought home 1,282 deer from District 7 last year when firearms and archery seasons were totaled, 696 of them from Chelan County.
Beyond the general Oct. 13-21 firearms season, many game-management units open in November for hunters with highly-prized special deer permits. Hunters in the Entiat Valley harvested the most deer in last year’s special permit period from any District 7 GMU — 61 out of the district’s total 272.
The predicted mild winter shouldn’t interfere with herd health next year, biologists said. But a hard, early snow that hangs around through early March, combined with fire displacement, might have heavier effects.
“The winter’s just going to be the biggest wildcard, and also will be the biggest hammer, on how these herds are going to respond,” Gallie said.
Open and closed
Former Wenatchee Complex fire information officer Mick Mueller advises all hunters to check with their local ranger districts before heading out, as closures can shift rapidly.
“What we’re telling hunters is bring a radio to stay attuned to fire changes, and changes in conditions that may allow for changes in fires,” Mueller said. “But otherwise, there are still no open fires allowed.”
Colockum area: The 91,603-acre Colockum Wildlife Area, which overlaps Chelan and Kittitas counties, is open, but a closure west from Coleman Canyon and the Four Corners makes the well-hunted Naneum Ridge State Forest off-limits. The closure will persist at least through this weekend. The Whiskey Dick and Quilomene portions of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area remain open.
Entiat Valley: Entiat River Road is open up to milepost 25 at Shady Pass Road; Shady Pass Road is open to 25 Mile Creek at Lake Chelan. The Entiat River Road is also closed east from Crum Canyon to Mud Creek, although Crum Canyon Road is open, as is Mud Creek traveling west. Navarre Coulee Road is also open.
“They really want to open up that one some more, because the Byrd Canyon Fire is getting a mop-up in the interior,” Mueller said.
Chiwawa River Valley: Chiwawa River Road is open all the way to Trinity, except an area closure northwest from Marble Creek to Rock Creek. That closure includes Chickamin Road, but the Rock Creek Trail is open. “That opens up a lot of area in the Chiwawa, and that’s a pretty popular area for hunting,” Mueller said.
Highway 97: From Magnet Creek, the Ruby Creek to Camas Creek loop is open. The rest of the area east of Highway 97 remains closed.
Icicle Creek Road: Open, but the Eightmile Road off Icicle is closed. There’s a closure from Rat Creek to Trout Creek, but Trout Creek Trail is open south of Icicle Creek Road.
Hunters should check with individual ranger districts for updated information before setting out.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123