Hunting

Fish and Game: Idaho outdoorsmen to have some of the best elk hunting conditions of all time

A big bull elk faces a very drizzly morning in the higher Rocky Mountains during the rut.
A big bull elk faces a very drizzly morning in the higher Rocky Mountains during the rut. Courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game

Hunters can look forward to a good fall season in 2018, with similar elk and white-tailed deer populations as last year and likely more mule deer in many areas.

Despite a setback in 2017 following a hard winter that mostly affected mule deer, most of Idaho’s deer and elk herds and harvests have been at or near historic highs in recent years and well above long-term averages. Hunters should see similar numbers this fall.

Let’s look at some figures to back that up.

In 2017, hunters took 22,751 elk, and they have killed more than 20,000 elk annually since 2014. That’s a significant statistic because before 2014, elk harvests were well below 20,000 for seven years. (The 10-year average from 2008-17 is 18,865 elk).

The last extended streak of elk harvests above 20,000 was from 1988 to 1996, which were historic high harvests in Idaho that topped out at 28,000 in 1994.

Whitetails are on a similar trend. Hunters took 26,502 whitetails in 2017, another 26,354 in 2016 following an all-time record of 30,578 whitetails in 2015. The last four years have been the highest consecutive years on record.

But mule deer hunters have not been as fortunate. A combination of a tough winter in 2016-17 and cutbacks in antlerless tags to protect breeding age does dropped the harvest by nearly a third from 37,070 in 2016 to 25,496 last year, but hunters should expect to see a modest increase this fall.

Here’s a more detailed look.



Elk outlook

Idaho elk hunters are having some of the best hunting of all time, and there’s no reason the current streak can’t eventually compete with all-time highs based on recent harvests and trends.

Word has gotten out that Idaho’s elk hunting is on an upswing, and part of the attraction is a combination of readily available tags sold over the counter and healthy elk populations. Elk tag sales have increased for the last five years and exceeded 100,000 annually since 2015. Prior to 2015, tag sales had not topped 100,000 in 16 years. Nonresident tags sold out in 2017, and they are selling faster this year, and will likely sell out again.

The 2017 elk harvest ranked second-highest in the last decade with 1,242 more elk than in 2016. It also ranks sixth all-time, and it’s 30 percent above the 50-year average elk harvest.

Here’s how the 2017 elk harvest breaks down:

  • Total: 22,751
  • Overall success rate: 24.4 percent
  • Bulls: 11,650
  • Cows: 11,101
  • Elk taken during general hunts: 13,277 (18.4 success rate)
  • Elk taken during controlled hunts: 9,473 (44.6 percent success rate)

Elk populations remain strong because they’re less susceptible to winter kill than deer, so they can continue to rebuild herds from year to year. Last winter, statewide calf survival was 66 percent, and the long term average 55 to 65 percent.

While Idaho is reliving some of its glory years for elk hunting, the location of the animals has changed. During record harvests in the 1990s, Central Idaho’s backcountry and wilderness areas were major contributors. They are less so these days, but other areas have picked up the slack.

There’s been a shift in populations from the wilderness and backcountry areas toward the interface between forest lands, agriculture and rural areas.

Harvest results show this. The Panhandle is the top elk zone in the state, and the top 10 zones include the Weiser River, Pioneer, Boise River, McCall, Smokey/Bennett and Salmon zones, all of which have major highways running through them.

Those top-producing zones provide accessible opportunities for many hunters, but they also have unique challenges because there’s often a mix of public and private lands where the elk roam.

Elk herds are doing so well in some zones, such as the Weiser River and Pioneer zones, that those herds are over objectives and Fish and Game has increased cow hunting opportunities to thin the herds.

For new elk hunters, or experienced hunters looking for a new place to hunt, Idaho’s elk populations are likely to remain healthy in the foreseeable future, so now’s a good time to learn a zone where there are abundant herds.

Idaho offers a variety of over-the-counter tags for elk hunters. Out of 28 elk hunting zones, only two are limited to only controlled hunts, although many zones have limits on the number of tags available.

Hunters should research each zone and may want to look beyond the general, any-weapon seasons to find additional opportunity. Many archery and muzzleloader hunts provide antlerless, or either-sex hunting, and also options for early and late-season hunts.

Mule deer outlook

Mule deer hunting had also been on an upswing in recent years, but a tough winter across most of southern Idaho in 2016-17 dropped the population, which also contributed to a drop of 11,574 in the mule deer harvest between 2016 and 2017.

But a few things should be noted. The drop in doe harvest accounted for 22 percent of the difference between those two years, which was intentional to protect the does that will hopefully continue rebuilding the herds in coming years. Most of those protections remain in place.

Deer tag sales in 2017 fell by 7,323 tags compared with 2016. If those tags had been purchased, and those hunters matched the 2017 success rate for mule deer, it would have added another 2,123 deer to the harvest. That’s assuming they were all mule deer hunters because success rates for whitetails is significantly higher (see below for details about whitetails).

While the mule deer harvest dropped by 31 percent between 2016 and 2017, the success rate between the two years only dropped by 8 percentage points, 37 percent success in 2016 vs. 29 percent in 2017.

Here’s the breakdown of the 2017 mule deer harvest:

  • Total: 25,946
  • Overall success rate: 29 percent
  • Bucks: 20,275
  • Does: 5,221
  • Mule deer taken during general hunts: 18,588 (24.5 percent success rate)
  • Mule deer taken during controlled hunts: 6,909 (56.4 percent success rate)

Mule deer herds had been growing leading up to 2017 with five consecutive years of above-average winter fawn survival until the 2016-17 winter, which had only 30-percent fawn survival (based on radio-collared fawns) and was the second-lowest winter survival since fawn monitoring started in 1998.

Fawn survival vastly improved this year. The 2017-18 winter survival nearly doubled from the previous winter’s 30 percent survival to 57 percent last winter, which is right at the long-term average and should mean more young bucks in the herds during fall.

That’s the age group that saw a sharp drop in the harvest, accounting for 10,171 mule deer in 2016, but only 6,462 in the 2017 harvest.

Mule deer fawn survival rates last winter were also unusually uniform in the seven monitoring areas spread across the state with the lowest coming in at 45 percent and the highest at 66 percent.

Returning to an average fawn survival rate could easily bump the 2018 harvest by several thousand young bucks, however, there will still be fewer 2.5-year old bucks, many of which perished in the 2016-17 winter or were taken by hunters in 2017.

The Southeast Region and the McCall/Weiser areas were hardest hit during the severe 2016-17 winter, while other areas had closer-to-normal fawn survival, but still below average. Areas that weren’t hit as hard are likely to recover more quickly.

White-tailed deer

Whitetails have long-been a favorite quarry for hunters in the Panhandle and Clearwater regions, where they account for the vast majority of the harvest. But whitetails have also taken on statewide significance in recent years because their harvest has increased and closely matched mule deer, which has traditionally far outnumbered whitetails in the harvest.

Part of the reason for the shift is stable and abundant whitetail herds, lots of general season hunting opportunities that include long seasons and liberal regulations with either-sex hunting. Those factors also contribute to a higher success rate than mule deer.

Let’s breakdown the 2017 whitetail harvest:

  • Total: 26,502
  • Success rate: 43.9 percent
  • Bucks: 15,895
  • Does: 10,607
  • Bucks five points or larger (on one antler): 3,384
  • General season harvest: 23,312 (42.7 percent success rate)
  • Controlled hunt harvest: 3,189 (54.6 percent success rate)

Unlike mule deer, Fish and Game does not radio collar whitetail fawns and does each winter and monitor their survival, or do other annual population surveys for whitetails. Biologists rely on other data to judge the health of the population, including harvest data.

Harvest has been over 26,000 for the last four years, and the number of five-points in the harvest has been consistent since 2007.

Whitetail hunting is meeting nearly all of the department’s objectives for the number of hunters, hunter days, buck harvest, and percentage of five points. The only exceptions are the Selway/Middle Fork areas are below objectives for hunt numbers and days, and southern Idaho is below objective for five-points, but southern Idaho is not considered a major focus for whitetail hunters.

Idaho has not seen any significant outbreaks of whitetail diseases in recent years, and now outbreaks have been detected this year.

All signs point to another good year for whitetail hunters with lots of opportunity and the chance to get a bigger buck for those who put in the time and effort.

Whitetail hunters should be aware of rule changes in Unit 10A in 2018, which includes a shortened season (Oct. 10 through Nov. 20), and hunters can not use a second deer tag in that unit.

  Comments