Looking into the Stevens County-based campaign to set four-point-minimum antler restrictions on white-tailed deer hunts in portions of northeastern Washington, one logical conclusion emerges:
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Gary Douvia of Kettle Falls has compromising photos of other commission members.
It’s weird enough the commission has bypassed Spokane for general meetings in Colville recently.
But in the next week the commission will squander staff time and thousands of dollars – is the state budget crisis over? – on four public meetings across the state largely at Douvia’s behest. Three stakeholder meetings also were held earlier this summer.
The public meetings will focus on whether all buck hunters should be limited to shooting only bucks with four or more antler points in units 117 (49 Degrees North) and 121 (Huckleberry) starting in 2011.
Fish and Wildlife Department biologists have come up with no solid reasons to saddle hunters with antler restrictions in those two units – the northeast’s most popular and productive whitetail units aside from Mount Spokane.
But Douvia and the Stevens County Fish and Wildlife Advisory Committee (SCFWAC), which includes county commissioners and business owners, have forced the issue just seven months before the department will hold statewide meetings for the regularly scheduled three-year hunting rules review.
The SCFWAC appears to have worthy goals: more deer and more big bucks.
State wildlife managers agree deer numbers have trended downward, likely for a number of reasons including habitat changes.
Some hunters have argued that boosting the number of older bucks will provide more efficient breeding, but biologists cite a study published last year that used DNA to investigate paternity in three whitetail herds in three states.
“They discovered that whitetail bucks of all ages do the breeding, not just the mature bucks,” said Kevin Robinette, Fish and Wildlife’s regional wildlife manager and the state biologist in the crosshairs of the antler-restriction issue.
Antler-rule benefits for whitetails, which live in brushy terrain, can’t be sorted as cleanly as those for open-country mule deer, which are easier to survey by air.
But surveys clearly show that more northeast bucks are being recruited into older age classes.
Bottom line: “We don’t think we need antler restrictions,” Robinette said. “Northeastern Washington offers good escape cover for a good percentage of bucks to avoid hunters and grow to larger sizes.”
The department may not be perfect in addressing the changing landscape of northeast whitetails, but it hasn’t been idle.
The agency addressed the 1990s decline of mature whitetails in 2001 with a policy to close general buck hunts after Nov. 19 to protect the big males during the peak of the rut when they are most vulnerable.
The controversial policy has had admirable results.
The percent of northeast whitetails with five or more points bagged by hunters has risen to an average of 21 percent, up from 12 percent in 2001.
“As a wildlife manager, I’m feeling pretty good when one of every five buck harvesters is tagging a mature deer,” Robinette said.
Furthermore, a whopping 58 percent of the 2009 whitetail buck harvest in the northeast had four points or better in Unit 117, up from 38 percent in 2001.
The increase was similar in Unit 121.
And after deer were hammered by two tough winters, the state made dramatic reductions in antlerless deer opportunities last year to help rebuild the whitetail numbers.
Mother Nature boosted the effort with a gentle winter that should have given deer a chance to bounce back this spring.
Being responsive doesn’t mean wildlife managers must wither from wildlife management principles that guide policy through the ebb and flow of what nature delivers.
Enforcement agents are concerned about the number of fork-horn whitetails that might end up dead in the brush after a season with antler restrictions. Counting antler points can be tricky where whitetails hang out.
Biologists are concerned that forcing all the harvest to mature bucks could have the consequence of reducing the number of bucks reaching five-point or larger size – as it did in Oregon before that state dropped its brief fling with whitetail antler point restrictions.
Nevertheless, seven of the 10 stakeholder groups said they could support antler restrictions.
Even within the WDFW there’s debate, since antler restrictions seem to be improving whitetail buck composition in the more open terrain of southeastern Washington.
But George Orr of Spokane is one Wildlife commissioner who’s eluded Douvia’s grip.
“No. 1, this ain’t Texas,” he said. “You don’t get results with antler restrictions on public and timber company land that you get for whitetails on private Texas leases with food plots and limited access.
“No. 2, when I go with my grandson, the memories have just as much to do with how we cooked the deer-camp stew as they do with how big a deer we shoot.
“Without a good reason, I’d rather not add the possibility of putting a kid in a situation where he knocks down a buck that’s one-point shy of legal.”