Herd numbers linger below 5-year average

A mule deer buck stands in a field. Late snow in the spring of 2019 was hard on mule and whitetail deer populations in southeastern Washington, leading state wildlife officials to project low numbers available to hunters this year.

Elk numbers in Washington’s Blue Mountains continues to trend below the recent five-year average, according to data compiled by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This spring, biologists counted 4,614 elk during helicopter surveys. That compares to a recent average of 5,062, according to the agency’s annual Hunting Prospects report.

The most recent population survey also showed a calf-to-cow ratio of 22-to-100 and 22.1 bulls for every 100 cows. The five-year average of calf-to-cow ratios is 27.4-to-100 and the average bull-to-cow ratio is 30.6-to-100

Biologists believe the dip is because of poor calf survival during the winters of 2016-17 and 2018-19, combined with predation, and the decline in bull ratios can be linked to the same harsh winters, summer drought and predation.

Add it all up, and it likely means tough hunting for spike and branch-antlered bulls this fall.

“The 2020 general season is expected to be similar to the average during the past four years. Harvest since 2016 has been the lowest in the past 20 years,” according to the report. “Hunter numbers also typically do not change substantially from one year to the next, but a slow decline has been observed with the declining population. The weather during hunting season does change from year to year, which will influence success rates.”

Hunters can pursue spike or yearling bulls in the Blues with a general permit but must draw a branch-antlered bull tag to go after older, bigger bulls.

Deer

It’s a similar story for mule and whitetail deer in southeastern Washington. State biologists monitor deer populations by tracking harvest trends, weather and habitat conditions. Deer hunting success in 2019 was about 25 percent, compared to 26 percent a year earlier and a five-year average of 27 percent. However, the agency noted that the number of deer hunters declined in 2019.

The late snow in the spring of 2019 was especially tough on deer herds in the area

“Although the deer went through January in presumably good condition, we observed significant winter kill across the district, with many ranchers along the Snake and Grande Ronde rivers reporting emaciated and dying deer. A substantial number of the dead deer investigated were yearlings and, with deer herds still recovering from the harsh winter in 2016-17, the combined effects were seen in the low 2019 harvest and are expected to carry over into the 2020 hunting season,” according to the report.

Last winter was much more mild, and deer likely survived better. However, the report notes it will take some time for young bucks to mature to become available to hunters under the state’s three-point regulation.

“We wouldn’t expect whitetail deer harvest to significantly improve until the 2021 season, and mule deer harvest by 2022,” according to the report.

The agency did not receive many reports of summer time die-offs of whitetail deer because of epizootic hemorrhagic disease and blue tongue. However, Oregon reported significant mortality in units along the state line.

“We may see some effects of this large die-off in (game management units) that border Oregon,” according to the report.

Mule deer numbers in the southeastern corner of the state appear to be stable or decreasing. However, the report says a drop in private agricultural land acres committed to the federal Conservation Reserve Program may lead to a slow decline in mule deer abundance.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.