MAMMOTH LAKES — Late each autumn, a chill settles on the summer range of the Sherwin herd high in the Sierra, and snow flurries tell the deer it's time to start down the slopes to their winter home in the Owens Valley.
That usually occurs in late October or early November, but if it were to happen earlier--say, during hunting season in that zone, Sept. 10 to Oct. 2--the result could be a slaughter.
A fire last summer in the Laurel Creek area south of Mammoth Lakes destroyed the sagebrush and other growth along a narrow corridor of the migration route as it approaches U.S. 395. It also killed a thick growth of aspen along Laurel Creek at the base of the mountains and, in some places, burned all the way to the crest.
Without that cover during an early migration, the parading deer would fill the gun sights of hunters, who would hardly have to step out of their pickup trucks.
"It would be like a shooting gallery," said Lou Roeser, owner of the Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit.
With four-wheel drive roads crisscrossing the area, Roeser visualizes a murderous cross fire and deer having to run the gantlet. "You could wipe out the whole herd," he said. "We could have zero bucks."
The Sherwin herd already is in trouble. The cover destroyed by the fire also provided food and fawning areas.
Deer, driven by their biological clocks and automatic homing systems, drop their guard during migration and become disoriented when confronted with man-made obstacles such as towns, roads, pipelines and power stations, all of which can be found in the Mammoth area and add to the stress of the migrating animals.
Roeser said he has seen deer so driven by instinct that they have tried to swim across man-made Crowley Lake in its formative years.
"They get pretty punchy, to where they aren't aware," Roeser said.
Ron Thomas, Mono County game manager for the state's Department of Fish and Game, conceded: "When those deer begin to migrate, they are much more vulnerable. They've just come out of (the high country), and there's no place else for them to go. They've been pushed out of the best places."
Back in the 1950s when Mammoth Lakes was just a sprouting village, the deer followed Mammoth Creek through the town, their migrating instincts overriding their fears of the few inhabitants.
"All our vehicles had dents in the fenders," recalled Roeser, referring to incidents involving disoriented deer.
But later, as the town and traffic grew, the deer started to veer south into the open country around Laurel Creek, funneled between the town and the steep escarpments in a relatively narrow corridor.
"And every (local) hunter knows this," Roeser said. "They just wait for an early storm to drive the deer down."
When that has happened, the shooting has been too close to town for comfort. Once, a spent bullet went through a school window and struck a teacher on the arm, according to Roeser.
Thomas, however, doesn't think an early migration is likely. He said: "I don't want to sell Lou short. That fire is a problem. But it would take an exceptionally early storm to get those bucks out on that open ground."
Roeser: "But it's happened twice in the last nine years, and (each time) the buck herd has been slaughtered."
Because of their concerns, Roeser and the High Sierra Packers' Assn. have approached the DFG about closing the deer hunt in the X9B zone that runs from Mammoth down to Tom's Place near the 7,000-foot Sherwin Summit, where the deer pass on their way to Round Valley.
Vern Bleich, associate wildlife biologist of the department's Bishop office, said: "I told (Roeser) that we were not prepared to do anything like that. I can't predict the weather, but I don't anticipate that there will be a storm that early. With or without cover, with an early storm there would be a slaughter either way, and that would be a giant setback for the buck ratio."
The season already is among the earliest in the state--"as early as is practical," Thomas said.
The DFG has allotted 2,500 hunting tags to the zone, which includes other herds besides the Sherwin. Thomas' figures show the Sherwin herd to have a population of only 2,810 deer, including about 10% bucks, a ratio he considers "terribly low."
Rick Rockel, owner of Ken's Sporting Goods in Bridgeport and president of the Mono Wildlife Council, said, "Their quota is totally unrealistic."
Rockel, however, said that Roeser and the packers are unduly alarmed.
"There's not going to be any impact during this hunt," Rockel said. "There won't be any shooting in there at that time. They've moved the deer season forward far enough to prevent any problem with the deer migration."