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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

S-R Hunting Outlook 2023: Eastern Washington, Idaho big game populations still recovering from disease, climate

A white-tailed deer surveys the area.  (Courtesy of IDFG )

The air is cooling and the leaves are turning, which means hunting season is getting closer and closer.

Already hunters are studying maps and making plans, calling landowners and sighting in their rifles, dreaming of big elk and deer.

Some hunters have already been in the woods for the state’s archery and high buck seasons. The early muzzleloader season for deer begins Saturday, while other seasons kick off in October.

Deer and elk populations in Eastern Washington and North Idaho have been hurt by disease outbreaks and tough weather in recent years. In some areas, the animals are still feeling the pain.

Meanwhile, Washington is asking hunters to help keep a looming threat at bay: chronic wasting disease.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is encouraging hunters to get animals they harvest tested for chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal condition affecting deer, elk, moose and caribou.

The condition hasn’t been found in Washington, but it has infected herds in Idaho and western Montana. WDFW is offering free testing for the disease. More information is available at


Eastern Washington’s deer populations suffered significant die-offs in 2021 due to epizootic hemorrhagic disease and bluetongue, a pair of diseases spread by biting gnats.

It affected white-tailed deer and mule deer, and in some areas it was severe, said Annemarie Prince, a WDFW biologist for District 1, which includes Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties.

“We know there were pockets where it was worse than in other pockets,” Prince said. “We do think deer took quite a big hit.”

She said the white-tailed deer population in her district is still down, but that fawn-to-doe ratios so far are indicating a productive year.

“Anecdotally, people say they’re seeing good fawn numbers,” Prince said. “We think that we had pretty good over-winter survival last year.”

WDFW’s hunting prospects, published online earlier this month, tell a similar story in for District 2 – Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman counties. The white-tail population is still down, but surveys show that fawn-to-doe ratios are on the rebound.

Meanwhile, District 2’s mule deer population is near its long-term average, but drought and heat in 2021 did impact fawn survival.

In District 3 – Asotin, Columbia, Garfield and Walla Walla counties – officials have seen some recovery for both deer species, but they don’t expect a return to long-term average hunter harvest numbers until 2024.

Idaho has dealt with the same issues, but the state says its deer populations are doing well.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s hunting outlook said that white-tails are still down in parts of the Clearwater region because of the EHD outbreak, but that hunters should still expect to see a fair number of them.

Lower-elevation areas along the Salmon and Snake rivers will have a lot of white-tails this fall, the agency wrote, but that they won’t be found in high densities.

The agency is expecting lower overall numbers for mule deer harvest because of a hard winter in southeastern Idaho that hit the population hard. Numbers may be better in other parts of the state, but Fish and Game expects harvest numbers will take a hit.


The fabled elk population in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington is still struggling.

WDFW reported that through helicopter surveys in 2022, biologists estimated the population at about 3,900 elk, which is 15% lower than the five-year average prior to that year. Bull numbers are down, too.

Officials blame a number of factors for the slide: severe winters, drought, predators killing elk and low numbers of calves living into adulthood.

Most of District 3 is limited to yearling bull harvest only.

Elk populations have generally been stable in District 2 over the past decade, according to WDFW. Hunter success in the general season has averaged 13% in that time. The key for hunters in that district is often securing access to hunt private land.

District 1 isn’t known for having large numbers of elk. Hunter harvest typically tops out at between 200 and 300 elk per year.

In Idaho, elk are doing well in the panhandle. Idaho Fish and Game wrote that biologists saw good calf survival, but that hot and dry weather may have an impact in where the elk are found.

In the Clearwater area, the agency is seeing low densities in the Lolo, Selway and Hells Canyon areas, but some optimism based on calf numbers.

Conditions are stable in the Palouse and Dworshak areas, and strong populations near Elk City.