Elk, mule deer and whitetail deer in Idaho’s Clearwater Region mostly escaped last winter’s late pounding of snow.
According to a hunting outlook report compiled by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the animals benefited from mild conditions during the first half of the winter and were mostly able to withstand the late storms that piled snow high.
The region’s prime mule deer hunting units, those along the Snake and Salmon river breaks in the western part of the state, require controlled hunt tags. But the agency noted there are smaller muley populations in units like 16A, 17, 19 and 20 where general over-the-counter deer tags can be used.
Mule deer across the state had been riding high in recent years. A series of successive mild winters allowed the population to grow. But that changed when Mother Nature served up an epic winter in 2016-17. The harsh conditions hammered young deer. The next year saw another mild winter, but last year’s late winter storms and cold spring also hit mule deer fawns hard.
“That record snowpack that we observed in February did not do the fawns any favors,” said Daryl Meints, the department’s deer and elk coordinator. “It was not like the winter of 2016-17, but we were below the long-term average for fawn survival.”
He said only about 46 percent of the fawns radio collared by agency biologists prior to winter survived. However, doe survival was near normal.
Department officials documented some whitetail deer mortality in the Clearwater Region but noted it was not widespread and hunters in most locations likely won’t detect declines sufficient enough to affect their chances at filling their tags.
The harsh late winter conditions were followed by a cool and wet spring that “resulted in very good summer habitat conditions for regional big game herds,” the agency reported in its 2019 statewide and regional deer and elk hunting outlook.
The Clearwater Region has healthy numbers of whitetail deer and lots of public land hunting opportunity. In the past, those two factors have combined to produce good hunter success rates and decent harvest rates on mature bucks with four or five points on one side of the antlers.
“The most productive whitetail units in the region tend to be those units either at the agriculture/timber interface, or units with substantial timber harvest and a variety of habitats (units 8, 8A, 10A, 11 and 11A),” according to the report.
Unit 10A will close earlier than other units popular with whitetail deer hunters. Last year, Idaho Fish and Game commissioners shortened the season in 10A after some hunters complained that the long season, among other factors, was leading to too many bucks being harvested.
Elk continue to do well in many units that border agricultural ground, such as the Palouse and Dworshak zones, but struggle in the remote backcountry such as the Lolo and Selway zones. Elk herd declines have also been documented in the Elk City and Hells Canyon zones.
On a statewide basis, elk are doing well, according to the report. Last year, hunters in Idaho harvested 22,325 elk, which ranks as the ninth best year on record.
“Elk hunting is good, and it’s been good for a number of years, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” said Meints.
He said in general, elk are doing better in front country units and struggling in many of the more remote units. Many hunters have responded and followed the elk.
“Elk and elk hunters have redistributed themselves across the landscape,” Meints said.
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.