LEWISTON – The Idaho Fish and Game Commission recently approved a whitetail management plan that will place more emphasis on collecting and tracking biological data for the species that some say has been given short shrift in the past.
The plan that runs through 2025 calls for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to develop ways to monitor whitetail deer population numbers and various dynamics within the population, such as doe-to-fawn and buck-to-doe ratios as well as the ratio of mature bucks.
In the past, the agency has shied away from gathering such data, largely because the thick habitat whitetails prefer makes it functionally impossible to collect it via traditional methods, such as surveys conducted by helicopter overflights.
“We would like to know more about whitetails in general from a population perspective,” said Daryl Meints, statewide deer and elk coordinator for Fish and Game in Boise. “We know we can’t get in a helicopter and conduct whitetail surveys like we do for mule deer in southern Idaho, and elk.”
Instead, the agency is using game cameras placed throughout whitetail territory, trying to come up with survey techniques that are statistically viable. Cameras have already been deployed across the state to track wolf numbers, and cameras have been placed in game management units 1, 6, 10A and 15 specifically to sample whitetail deer.
Agency biologists will also use a tried-and-true method – placing radio-telemetry collars on a broad age range of whitetail deer to track their survival and causes of mortality.
Dan Blanco, the former commissioner representing the Clearwater Region, was heavily involved in shaping the latest whitetail plan and said it will elevate the importance of the species.
“One of the things I think this plan does, after a long period of time, it begins to get us collecting biological data on our whitetail populations,” Blanco said. “That is the first step to getting whitetails on comparable footing with mule deer and elk in terms of the amount of time, money and research.”
He noted hunters harvest nearly as many whitetails as they do mule deer.
“That is very significant, and it’s time we up our game a bit in terms of giving them the attention they deserve.”
In the past, the department has tracked whitetail hunter success rates and hunter reports to keep tabs on the species with bushy white tails they lift and wave when they sense danger.
Blanco said hunters often complained to him that the agency lacked good data on whitetails. That included information like the number of whitetail on the landscape, as well as the percentage of older bucks in the population. The agency asks hunters to report all the deer they kill, if they were does or bucks, and if they were bucks how many antler points they had.
The agency used the percent of five-point bucks in the harvest reports to determine how many older bucks were in the populations. Hunters have objected to that method, pointing out that many young bucks with small antlers can still have five points on at least one side.
Meints acknowledged not all five-point bucks are mature, but he said the measurement was still valuable.
“Not all five-point bucks are equal, we know that,” he said. “But we used it as a long-term trend.”
Now the agency will try to develop a way to assess age based on antler size captured in the trail-camera images. Meints said those who analyze the photos will likely place bucks in three broad categories – young, medium and old.
The data collected will be used to give managers and commissioners more information as they craft hunting season regulations.
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