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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

S-R Hunting Outlook 2017: Washington big-game outlook leaves some hunters with the blues

Elk hunters with special permits should do fine in 2017; general tag hunters will find slimmer pickings. (Associated Press)
Elk hunters with special permits should do fine in 2017; general tag hunters will find slimmer pickings. (Associated Press)

Washington wildlife managers say game populations are in decent shape in most areas for the hunting seasons getting underway this month, but there are some notable exceptions for deer in northeastern Washington and elk in the Blue Mountains.

Waterfowlers, however, should be all smiles.

Deer and elk hunts have been scaled down in some areas because of concerns – especially for deer populations still recovering from setbacks, including a bluetongue outbreak two years ago followed by this winter’s deep-snow conditions.

Antlerless deer hunting in Eastern Washington continues to be cut back for 2017, including opportunities for senior hunters.

Blue Mountains elk also took a hit by a winter so severe the state blocked public access to some some winter ranges to minimize disturbance.

Elk are managed in Washington’s portion of the Blue Mountains to a maximum population of approximately 5,500, said Paul Wik, department wildlife biologist in Clarkston. Populations beyond that number would likely crash the threshold of tolerance for crop damage on private lands along the Blues, he said.

“But we had a tough winter and we’ve dropped the population estimate down to around 4,400” as pegged during the March aerial surveys, he said.

“Calf ratios are the lowest since 2000. Bull ratios stayed the same, but the total number of bulls dropped by about 300.”

While biologists didn’t measure any direct sources of mortality, Wik says winter conditions likely were the main factor since calf ratios were down across the Blues, not just in localized areas

He also pointed out that the winterkill likely continued after the March surveys, and it appeared to be worst on the Blues east of the Tucannon River.

Some game management units were on the decline even before the winter, he said. Elk numbers in Lick Creek Unit 175, for example, had already declined roughly 30 percent over the past several years, he said.

The cause isn’t clear, he said.

“All of that said, aside from the low calf numbers, most of the hunting units aren’t in bad shape,” he said. “A decline due to one bad winter hopefully will have only a short-term effect.”

Hunters with bull or cow tags should do well in the Blues, but general tag holders who have to search for spike bulls will have a skimpier season.

With hunting seasons for deer, elk, upland game birds, waterfowl and other migratory birds getting underway, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has posted an online guide to hunting opportunities throughout the state.

The Hunting Prospects report, available at, provides information updated by local biologists regarding game populations, hunting rules and land access in every game-management district in the state.

“This last winter was one of the tougher ones we’ve seen in recent years, and we have to give the herds – particularly those east of the Cascades – some time to rebuild,” said Anis Aoude, WDFW game division manager.

“Fortunately, most Washington deer and elk benefited from a previous string of mild winters, so the affected herds are only slightly below our population objectives.”

Gamebird hunting prospects appear to be good, according to the report. Late spring rains delayed nesting for doves and some other upland game birds in some areas, but observations in the field indicate a good hatch this year, said Kyle Spragens, WDFW waterfowl manager. Dove and forest grouse seasons opened on Friday.

“We did not do any pheasant surveys this spring,” said Joey McCanna, department biologist in Whitman County.

“However, we have seen an increase in pheasant numbers this year after harvest. There’s lots of good habitat from spring rains and we’ve seen two different age classes of chicks.”

McCanna predicts better pheasant hunting this year than in the past five years from Spokane County south to the Blue Mountains foothills based on what he’s seen in the field.

Waterfowlers are in the best shape of all hunters this season. A boom in the state’s waterfowl populations has rebounded ducks and geese from the drought of 2015, Spragens said.

Among the various species of ducks and geese that breed in Washington state, Canada geese are up by 17 percent, mallards are up by 74 percent and wood ducks are up by 76 percent from last year.

“This year’s long, wet spring was a boon to waterfowl in our state,” Spragens said. “Those local birds will be the focus of hunters’ attention until northern birds arrive later in the year from Canada and Alaska.”

Hunting regulations are detailed in Washington’s 2017 Big Game Hunting pamphlet or Migratory Waterfowl and Upland Game pamphlets or online.

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