Deer and elk hunters should see plenty of game in Idaho during fall hunts as mild winters have helped rebound mule deer herds hit hard in recent years, and Idaho’s elk herds continue to soar and harvests have come roaring back over the last six years.
In recent years, mule deer hunting has been on a bit of downswing, but 2020 could shape up to be a momentum changer.
The three-year stretch of winters spanning from 2016-2019 was tough on many of Idaho’s mule deer herds, largely due to poor-to-average fawn survival — including the second-lowest on record in 2016-17 — and harvest numbers have reflected that trend.
In 2019, Idaho hunters harvested 23,679 mule deer, 3,294 fewer than 2018, which is a decrease of about 12 percent. It was the lowest total since 2011, and about 15 percent lower than the 10-year average harvest of 27,964 animals.
The good news for Idaho mule deer hunters is that the statewide fawn survival data from last winter paints a brighter picture for 2020.
“Harsh winters tend to have more of an effect on mule deer than they do on elk. The flip side of that is when conditions are good, a deer herd can grow more rapidly than an elk herd,“ said Rick Ward, Deer/Elk Program Coordinator. “Throughout southern Idaho this winter, we had above average winter fawn survival, which bodes well for the upcoming mule deer season.”
About 63 percent of radio collared fawns survived last winter, which is the highest number in four years and above the 20-year average of 57 percent. Couple that with the fact that, despite poor-to-average fawn survival from 2016-19, overwinter survival of does remained high (above 90 percent), and Fish and Game reduced antlerless hunting opportunities to further protect breeding-age does and prime the state’s mule deer herds for a rebound.
The indications are there will likely be more young bucks available for hunters to pursue this fall. In the grand scheme of 2020 hunting season, that could be significant, because yearling, or two-point bucks (which were born last year), typically make up a significant portion of the buck harvest. All things considered, it will likely to be a good year for mule deer hunters — although they shouldn’t expect any harvest records to be broken in 2020.
“While it was above average, the overwinter survival of this year’s crop of fawns is not going to make up for the poor survival we saw in 2016-17 and 2018-19 in one fell swoop, particularly in those areas that were hit hardest in those years,” Ward said. “But it is a positive sign for our mule deer herds and for hunters.”
While many of the mule deer herds around the state are in better shape this year than they were in 2019, Ward pointed out that hunter congestion could prove to be more prevalent this year, particularly in areas that are more popular with mule deer hunters.
Because resident general deer tags are sold throughout the hunting season and unlimited for residents, it’s hard to project how many of resident hunters will be in the field come fall. However, if the the speed at which nonresident general deer tags sold out this year (two months sooner than they did in 2019) is any indication, deer hunter numbers could also be up this year after dropping a bit from 2018 to 2019.
Idaho elk hunters enjoyed another year of excellent hunting in 2019, harvesting 20,532 animals statewide. Elk hunters in 2020 can expect that trend to continue.
“I think all indications are that this should be another very good elk season,” Ward said.
Fish and Game is currently meeting or exceeding its population goals for bull elk in 17 of 22 elk zones, and 16 out of 22 for cow elk, Ward said. The elk harvest in 2019 was down from the prior year by about 8 percent, but it was still good for fourteenth highest of all time, and fifth highest in the past decade. The statewide elk harvest has exceeded 20,000 annually for the last six years, which has not happened since the all-time high harvests between 1988-96.
“We are in the second Golden Age of Idaho elk hunting,” Ward said. “The distribution of elk has definitely changed since the 80s and 90s, when there was that first pulse of high elk numbers and the Lolo Zone was leading the the way. That’s not the case anymore, but now our elk populations in the front country — particularly in Southern Idaho — are doing fantastic.”
As word has gotten out about the resurgence of elk hunting in Idaho, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of hunters, which have exceeded 100,000 annually over the last six years. Fish and Game’s generous allocation of over-the-counter, general hunt tags, and a broad range of antlered hunting opportunity, particularly for archery hunters, is appealing to resident and nonresident hunters. The allotment of nonresident elk tags sold out by June 17 this year. It’s the fourth-straight year that has occurred, and it’s happened earlier each year.
Ward said that elk tend to be hardier than mule deer and capable of withstanding harsh winters. That typically makes elk populations easier for biologists to manage through hunting. As elk populations have redistributed and continue to grow in these “front country” areas, in some cases pushing the boundaries of social tolerance, it has presented wildlife managers with unique challenges. During the last season setting cycle in 2019, wildlife managers responded by offering increased elk hunting opportunity in these areas, including general, either-sex hunts; over-the-counter cow tags; and generous antlerless controlled hunt tags. These expanded antlerless opportunities are a great way for hunters to put meat in the freezer while helping to manage elk populations, and it’s something they should take greater advantage of this year.
“One of the challenges we face in managing elk populations is getting enough hunters to hunt hard for and harvest antlerless elk in areas where we are working to bring elk herds back to the population objectives in the statewide elk plan,” Ward said.
There’s a bit of irony when it comes to Idaho’s whitetail hunting. It’s been so good for so long that good has become average.
When you look back since 2004 when Idaho’s deer harvest statistics were segregated between whitetails and mule deer, whitetails were a smaller portion of the statewide deer harvest with mule deer being the majority of deer taken by hunters.
But over the years, that proportion has shifted and whitetails now represent nearly half of the statewide deer harvest, despite 90 percent of whitetail harvest coming out of just two regions: the Panhandle and Clearwater.
There are two main reasons for whitetails’ ascent. First, Idaho’s whitetails are abundant and resilient, which means there’s a steady population of animals available to hunt. Second, Fish and Game offers long seasons, generous either-sex hunting opportunities, and unlimited general season tags for residents.
Whitetail hunters should expect good, or average, whitetail hunting in the state again in 2020. Winter weather was normal and there were no signs of excessive winter die off. So far, there’s no sign of an EHD or blue tongue outbreak, which are two diseases that can hit in late summer and kill lots of whitetails right before hunting season.
With a little help from the weather and plenty of hunters in the woods, there’s no reason the 2020 whitetails harvest can’t bounce right back to around the 10-year average of 24,568 white-tailed deer.
More hunting information
• Hunt details by game unit, harvest statistics, detailed maps of each unit, and hunt areas showing ownership and access can be found using Fish and Game’s Hunt Planner, or hunters can also contact regional Idaho Fish and Game offices.
• Here are regional outlooks compiled by regional wildlife managers and biologists in each Fish and Game region
Southwest Region – McCall - provided by Regan Berkley, McCall Regional Wildlife Manager
Elk: Lots of elk in the Weiser River Zone continues to be a good problem to have, but still a problem. Despite general hunts that include antlerless elk with any weapon, the zone is still over its objectives for elk. Too many elk? Isn’t that a good thing? Not exactly because some of those elk still cause damage to agriculture operations, so Fish and Game is offering generous antlerless hunting opportunities.
Weiser River and Brownlee zones (Brownlee is limited to controlled hunts) remain over objectives for elk, and Brownlee Zone has a bull/cow ration that is “out of this world.”
Despite lots of elk, they can often find refuge on private lands, or on steep, rugged public land that is difficult to access. So while the elk are there, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to hunt.
The McCall Zone also has lots of elk and lots of public lands to pursue them, but road access is limited in much of the zone and hunters have to pursue them in steep, brushy backcountry that may put them to the test.
Deer: The Weiser/McCall area has had two hard winters in the last 5 years, which set back mule deer herds. Biologists saw excellent fawn survival last winter, which will boost the number of young bucks available for hunters, but overall deer populations are still down.
Biologists surveyed the area in 2010 and again last winter and saw about 30 percent fewer deer. While there should be more young bucks this year, there will still be limited numbers of older bucks because the harsh winter of 2016-17 essentially wiped out the 2016 fawn crop, which would now be mature bucks had they survived. Because deer numbers remain down, antlerless hunting opportunities are limited to youth hunters, and only during the first week of the general any-weapon season.
Mule deer account for most of the deer in the area, but about 40 percent of the deer in Unit 23 are whitetails, and whitetail herds remain stable in that unit.
Southwest Region – Nampa — provided by -Rick Ward, Deer/Elk Program Coordinator
Elk: The Boise River Zone has seen consistently high winter calf and cow survival rates during the past six years. The population has remained stable due to antlerless harvest opportunity, and this year had good winter calf survival again.
The elk harvest in the Boise River Zone has also remained largely stable over that time period (averaging about 956 animals), as has the hunter success rate. The 2019 elk harvest came in at 945 animals, with a 19 percent success rate. The Boise River Zone is composed of just a single hunting unit (Unit 39), which has been the top unit for elk harvest for two straight years and routinely competes with Unit 1 in Northern Idaho for the top spot.
Things are also looking good in the Sawtooth Zone after a mild winter. The zone had very high success rates in 2018 and dipped in 2019, but there’s nothing to indicate elk numbers declined. It’s likely the dip in success rates was a factor of the weather conditions last year. Biologists expect the elk hunting Sawtooth Zone to be good in 2020, but weather is going to drive a lot of that.
Mule Deer: With generous over-the-counter, any weapon opportunity and given it’s proximity to Idaho’s most populated area, Unit 39 is the state’s most popular and productive unit for mule deer hunters. Hunters harvested more mule deer (3,374) in the unit than any other unit in the state in 2019, and it wasn’t particularly close. The next closest was neighboring Unit 43, where hunters harvested 1,179 mule deer. Not coincidentally, as the hunter success in Unit 39 goes, so goes the hunting success in the southern portion of the Southwest Region.
More than two-thirds of the mule deer harvested in 2019 in the Nampa subregion were harvested in Unit 39. Over the last five years, Unit 39 has accounted for between 61 and 70 percent of the harvest in the Nampa subregion, which is also composed of units 33, 34, 35, 38, 40, 41 and 42.
Unit 40 in the Owyhees is the next highest in terms of annual harvest, but general season opportunity is limited to two-points only.
Overall deer numbers have been increasing in Unit 39 for the last several years. When surveyed in January 2018, wintering deer in Unit 39 were up about 5,000 animals from the 2010 count. Adult winter survival has been consistently high. Although the fawn survival in Unit 39 specifically was below average in 2019, it was higher-than-average for the greater population that the unit is a part of, which biologists refer to as the Smoky-Boise Data Analysis Unit, or DAU.
Only does are collared in the Owyhees as part of a research project, and overwinter doe survival there was good.
What hunters should be aware of for the fall: The one tip that is pretty good in this part of the state is to get away from roads. If there’s a lot of people, the deer and elk aren’t going to be near the roads anyway.
The Pioneer Fire is just getting to the place now where it just cranking out deer and elk food, so it’s worth mentioning that elk and deer are continuing to move back into the area and hunting should continue to improve this year, particularly in areas near the edge of the burn where good cover remains.
Wildlife managers would like to see more antlerless harvest in Unit 39 and Unit 43. It’s gotten to the point where it may be nearing carrying capacity up there. Unit 39 has been a very productive mule deer unit, and has been for a long time, but biologists are starting to see fawn production go down, and the herd composition in December and fawn weights in the winter are starting to decline — all of which is used to measure the carrying capacity of our deer and elk herds. Fish and Game offers 1,500 either sex deer tags for Units 39 and 43 (Controlled Hunt No. 1068), and hunters should not hesitate to harvest a doe. That would be good for the health of the herd.