Deer hunters have reason for optimism and caution heading into the fall hunting season that opened Oct. 10 in most units for general, any-weapon hunts. There’s some modest growth in mule deer herds, which will likely be reflected in the harvest. But white-tailed deer hunting in portions of the Clearwater area are unlikely to have recovered from a disease die-off last year, and chronic wasting disease was detected for the first time ever in Idaho last year, and the disease will have to be managed.
Hunters should beware of regulations this year regarding mandatory CWD testing and restrictions for transporting intact carcasses of deer, elk or moose taken in Units 14 and 15.
Mule deer herds continue to trend in the right direction after a tough winter in 2016-17 that led to a 30 percent decline in harvest in 2017, then another tough winter in 2018-19.
The drastic harvest decline in 2017 was partly intentional as Fish and Game biologists slashed antlerless mule deer tags in an effort to preserve does and rebuild herds. That effort, along with three consecutive mild-to-moderate winters in southern Idaho, has led to increased harvest over the last three years, and this fall could easily mark the fourth.
Although mule deer harvests are trending up, they’re still below the 10-year average, but could return to it this fall with a modest bump in hunter success.
Despite a serious die-off of white-tailed deer in portions of the Clearwater and Panhandle Regions, the overall whitetail population remains solid, but with some significant holes in the population as localized whitetail herds, mostly in the Clearwater Region, were hit hard by epizootic hemorrhagic disease last year.
How much effect that will have on the whitetail harvest remains to be seen. While there was a 14 percent drop in harvest between 2020 and 2021, it’s possible that it could bounce back to near the 10-year average in 2022.
In 2021, hunters harvested 26,086 mule deer and 21,418 whitetails. Success rates were 36 percent for mule deer hunters and roughly 40 percent for whitetail hunters.
Mule Deer Hunting
Mule deer hunters could easily see themselves in a half-empty/half-full dilemma, but for sake of discussion, let’s go with half-full.
“Overall, things are looking pretty good,” Fish and Game’s Deer/Elk Coordinator Toby Boudreau said. “We’re on the upswing of the population cycle.”
Hunters harvested 1,277 more mule deer in 2021 than in 2020, an increase of 5.1 percent; however, mule deer harvest numbers across the state were still about 8 percent below the 10-year average (28,463).
Boudreau expects this year’s harvest will meet or exceed last year’s and track similar to the 10-year average.
That’s because mild winters mean higher fawn survival and larger herds. About 70 percent of radio-collared mule deer fawns survived their critical first winter this year. The long-term average is about 57 percent.
Fawn survival was also slightly higher than last year, and the last three years have been above or near the long-term average, which translates to a growing mule deer population and more bucks available for hunters.
Boudreau further explained winters are critical because that’s when the most deer die, but summers with good forage are also important for the growth of individual animals, which improves their hardiness and fitness to produce healthy fawns and increases antler growth for bucks.
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“Every mild winter is a blessing, and every wet summer is a bonus,” he said.
Sticking with the half-empty/half-full analogy, recent mild winters have been coupled with fairly dry, hot summers, so herd growth may be modest, but Boudreau said he’s confident that there will be more deer available for hunters, and the late, wet spring may boost antler growth.
Boudreau added that survival of fawns throughout the state is not uniform and depends on the unit where the fawns were collared. Some of the highest survival occurred in southwest and west central Idaho, and survival was closer to normal in the Magic Valley and eastern portions of the state.
Boudreau is also concerned with the long-term quality of prime mule deer habitat, particularly large wildfires in recent years that converted sagebrush and bitterbrush habitat – a favorite for mule deer – to grasslands that favor elk. Loss of quality habitat and can slow the recovery of deer herds and make them more susceptible to winter kill over time because deer have less forage to build and maintain fat reserves and survive difficult winters.
But hunters can look forward to the odds of having a larger mule deer harvest working in their favor this fall.
How It Stacks Up
As biologists predicted before the 2021 season, the statewide mule deer harvest increased in 2021, but the big story here is the amount of hunters versus the amount of mule deer harvested in 2021.
A total of 79,825 hunters set out for mule deer during the 2021 season — a 9.9 percent decrease from 2020, but 36 percent of those hunters went home with a mule deer, which was significantly higher than in recent years and points to improved hunting that should continue in 2022.
Also, mule deer hunters in 2021 recovered Idaho’s top deer harvest after whitetail hunters claimed that spot in 2020. A total of 79,825 mule deer hunters in 2021 harvested 26,086 mule deer. Their 36 percent success rate (general and controlled hunts combined) was the third highest in the last 11 years for mule deer.
White-Tailed Deer Hunting
White-tailed deer populations are typically a little more stable than mule deer populations, but they are still affected by weather and disease, as we saw in 2021 when a significant outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease killed an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 whitetails, mostly in portions of the Clearwater Region.
Continuing into 2022, whitetails will be on a slow, yet uphill trend as their herds rebuild, which will hopefully occur fairly quickly. Whitetail populations have recovered from previous EHD die offs in about 3 years, and not all places where the disease hit will see a full recovery that soon.
Despite the outbreak, and estimated 54,223 hunters harvested a total of 21,418 white-tailed deer in 2021 — a 13.8 percent drop from 2020. It’s not all doom and gloom though. Like elk and mule deer, white-tailed deer have still shown impressive numbers above the 20,000 mark (as shown in the chart above), still averaging 25,182 harvested in the past 10 years. And a lot of those bucks aren’t small, either, because mature bucks still take up a considerable share of the harvest.
Overall, this year’s whitetail hunting can probably be summed as good, but with an asterisk. If you’ve traditionally hunted an area that was hit by EHD, you probably should hunt elsewhere.
“We found a large percentage of whitetails that died from EHD were found at lower elevations which is predominately private land,” Boudreau said.
But Idaho’s white-tailed deer population outside the Clearwater region is looking healthy assuming EHD does not resurface again this summer, and whitetail hunters typically enjoy high success rates due to (relatively) healthy whitetail populations, generous season lengths and lots of either-sex hunting opportunities.