Hunting forecast: Average deer numbers, above average elk numbers seen in eastern Idaho

(Photo by Bill Schaeffer/Post Register)

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Deer and elk aren’t in quarantine this fall. They may be a little difficult to find and they might be practicing social distancing from you but the initial outlook for this year’s fall hunting season in southeast Idaho appears to be stable for mule deer and good for elk.

That’s the crystal ball prognostication by Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Zach Lockyer, the southeast region wildlife manager,

“Mule deer hunting we think will be very similar to the fall of 2019 both in the terms of number of deer and numbers and age classes of bucks,” Lockyer said. “On the elk side, we think elk hunting will be very good again. It has been good in our region for several years and our data suggest that elk continue to do well and our message is that hunters should expect very good elk hunting again.”

Idaho’s mule deer and elk populations have yet to fully recover from the severe winter of 2016-2017. The 2015 harvest of mule deer, 37,885, and elk, 24,230, represented ten-year highs for Idaho. In 2019 the statewide elk harvest of 20,532 was an eight percent drop from 2018’s harvest of 22,326 and the 2019 statewide mule deer harvest of 23,679 was down 13 percent from the 2018 harvest of 26,973.

“We’ve had some mild, some average, some slightly above average winters the last four years and numbers have come up a little bit, but the mule deer herd has not rebounded to the level it was in 2015,” Lockyer said.

Mule deer and elk numbers for 2020 appear stable based on the winter survival survey.

“This past year we put GPS collars on 59 fawn mule deer across the region and that was done in December and January,” Lockyer said. “We monitor them through the end of winter, through the end of May to estimate survival and our survival rate on those collared fawns was about 61 percent.”

At the same time IDFG monitored 69 GPS-collared mule deer does in the southeast region. Survival of the collared does was 93 percent. They also monitored 40 cow and 25 calf elk with GPS collars in the Diamond Creek elk zone, Game Manaagement Units 66A and 76. Cow survival rate was 90 percent and calf survival rate was 44 percent.

The average survival rate for mule deer fawns and below average rate for elk calves do not indicate a growing population trend for the southeast region.

“When fawn survival exceeds that 60 percent we should have a growing trend,” he said. “When it is below that we should have a decreasing trend and so this past year we’re expecting and anticipating very similar deer numbers to what we saw a year ago.”

According to Lockyer an aerial survey of the Diamond Creek elk zone in 2018 indicated an estimated elk population of 4,251. This represented an 84 percent increase from the 2013 population estimate of 2,300.

If the 2020 hunting season seems a little more crowded than in year’s past you might have to thank Covid-19 for increased numbers of hunters.

Lockyer said he could be wrong but he anticipates a greater number of hunters this fall than they’ve seen in many years.

“Since the pandemic, outdoor recreation just in general, fishing, camping, hiking, anything outside, we’ve seen a huge increase in those activities and people enjoying the outdoors,” he said. “Similarly, our controlled hunt applications this year, we saw increases in numbers of applicants. We’ve sold out of our non-resident deer and elk tags sooner than we’ve ever had before. I think this fall there will be more people participating in hunting than we’ve seen in the last few years.”

Lockyer said that out-of-state tags sell out every year but have never sold out as early as they have this year.

With the potential for what could be a very high-density hunting season Lockyer cautions everyone to be careful and courteous while hunting or hiking in Idaho this autumn.

“Be respectful of other hunters,” he said. “When you see other people out there in the field, they’re trying to enjoy the exact same thing as you are and make those same memories and even though you might overlap a little bit or you see new people in your traditional spots be mindful and respectful of them.”

Wearing hunter orange is not required in Idaho but it is a good safety measure Lockyer said.

“Be mindful of those things we all learned in hunter education,” he emphasized. “Being safe in terms of other hunters and being safe and ethical when you’re about to harvest an animal.”

Lockyer said that the IDFG has not determined if they will be running check stations this fall and, if they do, what Covid-19 preventative measures will be taken.

However, should hunters see a check station they are required to stop Lockyer said. He said that the check stations provide valuable information in their efforts to monitor chronic wasting disease.

It’s a similar forecast for the upland game bird season, stable with average numbers.

Curtis Hendricks, Fish and Game regional wildlife manager for the Upper Snake region, said that weather conditions this spring and summer resulted in good brood survival rates for southeast Idaho’s upland game bird population.

“On our Sage grouse information, production was really good for sage grouse up in the Medicine Lodge, Sand Creek area,” Hendricks said. “Nest success was good and brood survival was good so things for Sage grouse up in that neck of the woods looked good.”

He said that Sage grouse numbers have not recovered from the Grassy Ridge fire from two years ago and that declining attendance at some leks in the area are of an ongoing concern for the species.

Hendricks said the wet conditions in late spring and early summer did not impact next success and might have been beneficial to the chicks.

“We got a good flush of forbs and green up out there and that relates to bugs and that is critical for chick survival,” he said. “So the early part of summer was seemingly good for Sage grouse and we assume as well for Sharptails and any other birds that we in the areas. The response of our vegetation to those conditions seemed to set themselves up well for those species.”

Hendricks said that surveys of sharptail leks in the Sand Creek Wildlife Management Area and the Tex Creek area were up this year compared to past years.

He also said that the Tex Creek bird population is still down from the Henry Creek fire in 2016.

“My assumption is we should probably see a little better sharptail hunting than we had the last couple of years,” Hendricks said.