From staff and wire reports
If you want the quick version of what the 2021 Idaho big game season is likely to look like, here it is: It’s 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.
Biologists, however, 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% for elk hunters, 28% for mule deer hunters and 44% 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 past 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 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. 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 past 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 past 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 past 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 (idfg.idaho.gov/press/hunter-harvest-was-elk-mule-deer-and-white-tailed-deer-2020-seasons).
-Roger Phillips, IDFG Public Information Supervisor
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. Nonresidents participation is limited in all deer and elk hunts. For the first time, nonresidents 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.
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.
To get details about fires, see the Fire Information webpage (idfg.idaho.gov/fire).
Elk population is like a rising tide
While deer populations can be boom or bust, elk populations are almost more like the tides gradually rising and ebbing, but there’s been little ebbing in recent years. Hunter harvest of elk in Idaho is near the highest it’s been with some caveats.
Some of that harvest has shifted from the traditional backcountry and wilderness areas to more “front country,” and recent harvests also include a higher number of depredation hunts where elk are damaging crops. But there remains plenty of elk for hunters to pursue in most regions of the state, including lots of general hunting opportunities.
“Elk populations, particularly those in southern Idaho, are robust,” Ward said.
Southern Idaho, the Panhandle and eastern Idaho have continued to produce lots of elk, as well as some of central Idaho, but portions of the Clearwater country and wilderness areas in central Idaho continue to struggle, or hold their own, at lower populations than we’ve seen in recent decades.
“We don’t have an elk population issue,” Ward said. “But we have an elk distribution issue.”
He noted that even where elk herds are strong and healthy, things can change. Unlike deer that have either a small home range, such as whitetails, or predictable summer and winter ranges like mule deer, elk tend to be more nomadic.
“Elk behavior is radically different than deer,” he said.
Mule deer herds bounce back, but not completely
Mule deer hunters may already be pining for the “good ol’ days” pre-2017 when five consecutive moderate and mild winters allowed herds to grow and hunters reaped the rewards.
The severe winter of 2016-17 “reset the clock” for mule deer, Ward said. Herds are heading in the right direction, but still haven’t completely bounced back.
“Fawn survival the last two winters has been above average, which should translate to more deer,” he said.
Mule deer, however, are also found across a variety of habitats and elevations throughout the state, so all herds aren’t rebounding at the same rate, and some may be decreasing.
Ward noted the Weiser area as an example. Mule deer herds dropped by about a third between population surveys conducted in 2010 and 2020, and can be largely attributed to the severe 2016-17 winter. It will likely take more moderate to mild winter for it to fully rebound, and there are no guarantees what weather winter will bring.
While fawn survival typically garners much of the attention because young bucks make up most of the harvest, mild winters also allow those bucks that survive their first winter and hunting season to grow into mature animals, so it’s likely hunters will also have a better chance of finding more trophy-sized bucks.
Whitetails are wait-and-see situation
Overall, whitetail hunting should remain solid, but with some caveats. Whitetail harvests have grown over the past few decades and the last few years have been similar to the mule deer harvest.
“We’ve seen the whitetail harvest increase since the 1970s, and now it has plateaued over the last decade at a high level,” Ward said.
Part of that growth is healthy whitetail populations, and part of it is hunters taking advantage of generous hunting seasons with lots of either-sex hunting opportunities.
While harvest numbers are similar, whitetail hunting success rates were nearly two-thirds higher than mule deer hunting last year.
So far, there’s no reason to think good whitetail hunting won’t continue this fall, but biologists are closely watching a hemorrhagic disease outbreak that was detected in July and is likely to continue through late summer and fall. The disease tends to be highly contagious, but typically stays in fairly localized areas. If previous years are an indication, it may hit local herds hard in some areas, but won’t have as severe of an impact on the statewide whitetail harvest.
That’s not to downplay the impact of the disease, especially on those local whitetail herds. Fish and Game staff will continue to monitor the disease and update hunters throughout the hunting season.
Here’s a detailed deer and elk outlook for each region:
Elk: Elk numbers in the Panhandle also remain strong with Units 1 and 4 being among the top elk units in the state, ranking fourth and third in 2019. Panhandle units accounted for half of the top 10 elk units in the state with the Units 3, 6 and 5 joining Units 1 and 4.
With elk survival and production both ranging from moderate to high, hunters will have plenty of elk to pursue in the Panhandle Region in 2021 and should have a good-to-excellent hunting there.
Habitat conditions are dry throughout North Idaho. There are numerous wildfires burning across the region that have led to large forest closures in certain areas both on federal lands and private timberlands. Some of these fires are expected to burn for a long time and conditions may not change for the better prior to archery seasons.
Hunters will want to check ahead to make sure they can access their hunting spots, and have a backup plan for where to go if closures exist in their area. Observe all restrictions in place regarding fires and off road travel.
Deer: Whitetail hunters should be seeing the usual healthy herds of whitetails. Fawn production and winter survival have been good the past few years, and the region has not had population setbacks in recent years. Unit 1 in the northern part of the region continues to be the top whitetail producer in the state, with good deer populations and ample public land access.
But Unit 1 is not alone as a top producer in the Panhandle.
Units 2, 3, 5 and 6 were also in the top 10 for whitetails thanks to habitat and weather conditions that have been favorable for growing whitetails. Whitetail hunters in the Panhandle have a long hunting season, generous either-sex hunting opportunities and a good chance to encounter mature bucks.
-Micah Ellstrom, Panhandle Regional Wildlife Manager
Due to uncertainty and constantly changing situations regarding a disease outbreak among the Clearwater’s deer population, ongoing wildfires and access closures, Fish and Game is postponing an outlook for the region. Hunters can stay up to date on what’s happening through the Clearwater Region webpage (idfg.idaho.gov/region/clearwater).
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