Big game hunters should have success this year, but there are disease concerns - East Idaho News

Big game hunters should have success this year, but there are disease concerns

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Roger Phillips | Idaho Fish and Game

The following is a news release from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

IDAHO FALLS – If you want the quick version of what the 2021 big game season is likely to look like, here it is: similar to last year for elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer. There’s been no dramatic changes to the statewide populations for those animals up or down, and the statewide harvests for 2021 should also be similar to 2020.

However, biologists are closely tracking a disease outbreak among deer herds in the Clearwater area, and it’s too early to tell how that may affect the larger population and fall hunts.

In 2020, hunters harvested 22,776 elk, 24,809 mule deer and 24,849 whitetails. Elk harvest was above the 10-year average, and deer harvests were slightly below it. Success rates were 23 percent for elk hunters, 28 percent for mule deer hunters and 44 percent for whitetail hunters.

Thanks in part to a relatively mild winter and healthy herds in most parts of the state, Fish and Game Deer/Elk Coordinator Rick Ward expects 2021 harvests will meet, or possibly exceed, last year’s harvest because there are plenty of animals available, but there are also some changes that could affect that.

As usual, there’s more to the big picture

Idaho’s big game harvest over the last decade has generally stayed within the bounds of normal fluctuations and been fairly predictable. For example, elk harvests rose to about 20,000 animals in 2014 and have stayed above that number ever since and reflect a healthy, robust and relatively stable population, which is likely to continue.

Mule deer populations tend to have more spikes and drops, which is largely driven by weather, or more specifically, winters. Mild winters like last winter typically mean growing herds, or at minimum, stable ones.

Hard winters mean lower fawn survival and fewer young bucks the following fall, and severe winters kill a significant number of the adults, and herds may take years to recover. That is also reflected in the mule deer harvest over the last five years after herds and harvests took a substantial hit after the 2016-17 winter.

“Mule deer are kind of the poster child for boom and bust populations,” Ward said.

White-tailed deer populations tend to be a little more stable than mule deer populations, but they are still affected by weather and disease. Over the last decade, whitetail harvests have not fluctuated as much as mule deer, and Idaho’s whitetail harvests have been at, or near, historic levels in recent years. Last year also marked the third time in the last 10 years the state’s whitetail harvest exceeded the mule deer harvest.

“If you think back a few decades, that would have been unimaginable,” Ward said.

Read more about 2020 harvest stats.

2021 season includes significant regulation changes

While hunters should have plenty of opportunities to harvest game, there is a significant change that could affect the overall harvest.

The Fish and Game Commission changed nonresident tags for 2021 and nonresidents are more restricted than in the past. Non-residents participation is limited in all deer and elk hunts, and for the first time, nonresident are only allowed to hunt in one unit during general deer hunts, and their numbers are also limited in each elk zone, as well as a statewide cap on nonresident deer and elk tags.

The intent was to redistribute nonresidents throughout the state and restrict their ability to hunt multiple units for deer. What effect those changes will have on harvest and overall hunter success remains to be seen.

“Hunters are going to adjust to the new system and figure things out,” Ward said. “But it’s going to take a year or two for the dust to settle.”

There’s also the wildcard that affects harvest: fall weather. North and Central Idaho are experiencing a major wildlife season, which could affect archery deer and elk seasons that start Aug. 30.

There was also a disease outbreak detected among whitetails in the Kamiah area in Late July and August. Biologists are getting reports the outbreak may be more widespread and is likely to affect more herds in the Clearwater area.

Resident elk hunters are reminded that if they want to exchange an elk tag for another zone that could be limited by wildfires, or access restrictions, they must do so before their hunting season starts. For many archery hunts, that’s Aug. 30.

To get details about fires see the Fire Information webpage.

How deer and elk populations are monitored

Big game managers throughout the state are constantly looking at data that provides details on how herds are fairing and whether they are growing or declining. Harvest stats are one way biologists track populations, and aerial surveys are done periodically in most areas to gauge population trends over time.

bull and cow elk
Siggy Nowak from Pixaby

Each winter, biologists in Central, Southern and Eastern Idaho capture fawns and elk calves during winter and fit them with telemetry collars.

Those young animals are monitored until late spring to see how many survive, and survival rates are applied to the larger population to get an estimate of how many animals were added.

Statewide, 77 percent of collared elk calves and 64 percent of mule deer fawns that were collared during winter survived through the end of April. That compares with 77 percent and 65 percent through the same period in 2020.

Fish and Game has been monitoring the winter survival of fawns for 23 years, and the average survival of fawns is about 57 percent, which means two years of above-average survival for mule deer fawns and growing herds.

“Fawn weights, which indicate how likely they are to survive winter, were high in many places in southern Idaho when we captured and collared fawns in December and January. These are the conditions that lead to herd growth,” Ward said.

Ward added that fawn survival is not uniform, and it ranged from 50-85 percent in 2021, depending on where the fawns were collared. Elk have not been trapped and collared for as long as mule deer, and elk calves typically survive at a higher rate than mule deer fawns.

Since researchers began collaring elk calves in 2014-15, survival has ranged from a low of about 52 percent in 2016-17 to a high of 84 percent in 2014-15, so last winter’s 77 percent survival is at the upper end of that range and signals herd growth.

Biologists also collar some adult does and cows, which typically survive at a high rate, but serve as an early warning if they start dying during hard winter.

Read more about 2019-20 winter deer and elk survival.

Winter collaring and fawn monitoring are unfeasible in the northern parts of the state, but Fish and Game has started to incorporate data gathered from its extensive use of game cameras for monitoring wildlife populations.

The method involves taking millions of photos, and using sophisticated computer software to sift through them and applying mathematical modeling to get deer and elk population estimates at the game unit level.

“We are confident we have a method that will measure deer and elk abundance in North Idaho,” Ward said. “But we have nothing to compare it to in some areas, so this will be our new yardstick.”

Ward noted that getting populations estimates is only part of the project, and biologists are also trying to learn what drives, and limits, deer and elk populations in the northern parts of the state.