Last year was the largest deer harvest since 1992 and the largest elk harvest since 2005. This fall’s harvests could match or top last year’s depending on the number of hunters, weather and other hunting conditions.
Hunters harvested 61,200 whitetail and mule deer in 2014, which is 12,100 more than 2013 and the most since 1992. Hunters took 28,200 whitetails in 2014, which is 5,100 more than in 2013 and the third-highest harvest of all time.
Idaho Fish and Game sold 157,400 deer tags last year, the most since 1993, and the statewide success rate for deer hunters was about 40 percent.
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Fish and Game’s annual winter monitoring showed the highest mule deer survival rate since the program began 15 years ago. Fawn survival was nearly 80 percent. By comparison, during the worst winter in the monitoring program’s history only about 25 percent of fawns survived.
“We’ve been lucky,” Fish and Game’s State Game Manager Jon Rachael said. “We’ve had very mild winters.”
Winter is the major regulator of deer populations. While more deer survive mild winters, mild is not always good. Drought can mean less available forage for animals, which means they can be less fit to survive the coming winter. But even in years with low snowpack, well-timed rain in spring and summer can improve forage.
Biologists said more than 95 percent of mule deer does that were radio collared in the past two years survived each winter. Healthy does typically produce twin fawns that quickly expand herds when conditions are favorable.
Fawn survival is a key indicator of the health of deer herds and of future hunting success. Last year’s male fawns become this year’s young bucks, which make up a significant portion of the annual harvest.
Mild winters could result in a good carryover of mature bucks, too.
“I think we’re going to have a better year than last year because we are going to have more yearlings available,” Rachael said. “There should be more mule deer than we’ve seen out there in a long time.”
While mule deer populations are up throughout the state, Rachael cautioned that doesn’t mean they will be evenly distributed. During dry years, deer tend to congregate around water and at higher elevations.
Whitetails, which dominate northern and central Idaho, are doing well. Whitetail harvest numbers have increased five out of the past six years and are above long-term averages. If trends continue, hunters could top the all-time whitetail harvest of 29,800 set in 1996.
Fish and Game does not monitor whitetails the same way it does mule deer. Populations are tracked through hunting statistics, such as success rates, percentage of mature bucks and the number of days hunters spend pursuing them.
“There’s reason to think that whitetails will be doing very, very well this year,” Rachael said.
The dry summer, especially up north, has Rachael concerned about the condition of deer heading into winter, and a harsh winter could mean trouble for whitetails.
There have been scattered reports of dead whitetails in the Clearwater Basin, which could have been caused by epizootic hemorrhagic disease, commonly known as EHD. The disease is spread by biting gnats and doesn’t pose a threat to humans. There are no confirmed cases, but the disease has hit whitetails in the past during late summer.
Idaho’s elk population and hunting success are more complex than those of deer, but elk hunters did well last year, recording the largest harvest since 2005 with a success rate of about 24 percent.
Hunters bagged 20,700 elk in 2014, which was 20 percent more than in 2013 and the largest harvest since 2005. Elk tag sales and harvests have increased for three straight years.
This year’s harvest could again top 20,000, which has happened only five times in the past 20 years. Fish and Game sold 93,100 elk tags last year, 4,400 more than in 2013 and the most since 2008.
The correlation between elk tag sales, harvests and success rates in recent years is interesting.
Fish and Game sold more than 90,000 elk tags annually between 1995 and 2008, and then participation in elk hunting gradually declined. In 2009, tag sales dropped below 90,000 for the first time in 13 years and bottomed out at 82,950 in 2012. Between 2005 and 2011, there was a similar declining harvest trend, except for a one-year bump in 2010.
But in recent years, success rates and harvests gradually increased as hunters started seeing more elk. It’s likely that a combination of mild winters, predator management and improved economy has led to the resurgence.
Even with some difficult years, the average elk harvest over the past decade was 18,000, which is about 2,000 elk more than the 50-year average.
Elk populations are different from deer, which tend to have boom and bust cycles. There are fewer elk, and population trends tend to be more gradual compared to deer.
Wolves’ impact on elk
Before the federal reintroduction of wolves in 1995-96, Fish and Game focused on bear and mountain lions when it need to manage predators to boost elk herds. As wolf populations grew, but still remained federally protected, Fish and Game’s primary response to declining elk herds in wolf country was to limit elk hunting opportunities.
Federal protection was removed in 2009, allowing Fish and Game to manage wolves more like bears and mountain lions. Idaho had its first wolf hunting season that year and has continued every year since except 2010, when wolves were temporarily placed back under federal protection.
Hunters and trappers have harvested about 1,300 wolves since 2009, which has helped elk herds.
“Things have definitely changed since 2008-09 when we had the highest density of predators,” Rachael said.
The Sawtooth Zone in central Idaho is a good example. In 2009, Fish and Game restricted the number of elk tags. Even with limits on the number of tags, some went unsold because hunters weren’t seeing the numbers of elk they were used to seeing — but they were seeing lots of signs of wolves.
Fish and Game liberalized wolf hunting in the area, and hunters responded by taking more wolves. Since then, elk herds in the Sawtooth Zone have started to bounce back along with hunter interest. Resident and nonresident tags quickly sold out this year.