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Orofino hunters worry about whitetail deer herds

UPDATED: Sat., March 10, 2018, 6:09 p.m.

A whitetail doe leads her fawn across the hiking trail along the Little Spokane River. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
A whitetail doe leads her fawn across the hiking trail along the Little Spokane River. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

A small group of hunters from Orofino is determined to change the way the Idaho Department of Fish and Game manages the region’s whitetail deer herds.

Members of the newly minted Northern Idaho Whitetails Forever claim the long whitetail season in northern Idaho, combined with what they call a proliferation of nonresident hunters, has hit the population hard and depleted the number of mature bucks with large antlers.

“We are hunting these deer too long,” Jeremy Hartig said. “We need to make some changes to make sure we have a sustainable future for the resource.”

They feel wildlife managers didn’t take their complaints seriously at a meeting in Orofino late last year and say the perceived snub has further fueled their efforts.

“We all felt it was falling on deaf ears, so we formed the group,” Mark Cochran said.

The members, who also include Bill Samuels, started gathering information to back their case. They say Fish and Game managers are using an outdated Whitetail Management Plan and basing some of their decisions on an old whitetail hunter satisfaction survey. The survey was conducted in 2003, and the management plan was updated a short time later.

“We have 15-year-old data they are still hanging their hat on,” Hartig said.

Group members are targeting the length of the whitetail season which, in many areas, runs more than 50 days for rifle hunters. They would like to see it shortened on the back end so it excludes all or part of the whitetail rut or breeding season, which typically occurs in mid-to-late November and extends into early December.

The department has long allowed holders of whitetail tags to pursue their quarry into the first few days of December in Units 8 and 8A. In 2008, the season in units 10A, 11 and 11A were also extended into early December. Cochran said the group supports shortening the season or changing the last few weeks to archery only, so success levels drop and more bucks survive to reach a mature age and big antler sizes.

“We could go with lower success-rate hunts so everybody still has an opportunity to go out there, but probably not with the success rate of having a high-powered rifle season during the peak of the rut,” Cochran said.

Group members acknowledge there may be ample deer populations in areas adjacent to farm fields but said they believe numbers are declining in more heavily forested areas. Samuels said the department should consider tailoring regulations on a finer scale rather than having the same regulations over large geographic areas.

“We are too broad-brushed in our seasons and too liberal in our allowances, and the deer are showing the effects and it’s a very dramatic decline,” Samuels said.

They also say logging levels on private land, such as property owned by Potlatch Corp., have increased in the past decade and the deer are losing critical security cover. In addition, they want the department to reduce the number of tags available to nonresident hunters and eliminate a tag for out-of-state youth that allows such hunters to purchase tags at a bargain rate.

Clay Hickey, the department’s wildlife manager at Lewiston, said his agency is in the process of updating the Whitetail Management Plan. That effort will begin late this winter or early spring with a new hunter satisfaction survey.

“Typically, how we start our plans is to see what people are happy about and what they are unhappy about,” Hickey said. “If they are happy, it tends to be minor plan changes, and if they are unhappy it can be big changes.”

The survey will be mailed to a random sampling of hunters designed to reach a cross section of hunters and landowners. As the plan is developed, the department will share its intentions with the public and seek comments from many different types of hunters.

“If there is a harvestable surplus, it’s somewhat of a social issue of how you harvest it,” Hickey said. “How people weigh in on that is important. Depending on what you want to manage for, it could mean lots of pain for what hunters would have to accept to get big bucks. We have to get broad input, not just from a local group.”

If changes are made in particular units, Hickey said the department has to consider how it will affect nearby units. For instance, he said if the hunting season were shortened in Unit 10A so it doesn’t overlap the rut, many of the people who hunt there would likely flock to nearby units with later seasons on the Palouse or Panhandle.

Hickey said hunting harvest records don’t show that big bucks are on the decline in most areas. Even in areas where there has been a slight drop in the harvest of big bucks, Hickey said the department’s objectives are still being met. The areas that have seen drops haven’t had seasons lengthened, he said.

Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner Dan Blanco of Moscow has met with the group and said he shares some of their concerns. Blanco would like the department to determine if the season in 10A should continue to last into early December. He’d also like Fish and Game to look at the reduced tag prices of nonresident youth and the department’s practice of offering unsold nonresident tags as a second tag to resident and nonresident hunters alike. But he also wants to make sure hunters who like hunting the late part of the season are heard.

“I appreciate their efforts,” he said. “As always, there are two sides to every issue.”

The group held a meeting at Orofino High School on Feb. 24 in an effort to spread its message and attract more members to its cause.

“This meeting (was) about showing the community who we are and what we are about and getting a head of steam and getting them behind us. It’s time people are held accountable and make tough decisions for the future,” Hartig said.