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Despite heavy snowfall during two recent winters, Idaho’s elk herds are doing well.

Idaho deer and elk hunters should see good to excellent hunting for elk and white-tailed deer this fall, and average mule deer hunting, but that’s likely to vary across the state. 

A difficult winter for mule deer fawns took its toll on herds for the second time in three years, which will affect the numbers and age classes of bucks. Elk typically do not succumb to winter kill except under extreme conditions, and elk herds continue to do well in most areas of the state and are on track to match some historic-high harvests.  


Elk

Idaho elk hunters have recently enjoyed excellent hunting with 22,325 elk taken in 2018, which ranks among the top-10, all-time harvests (ninth). 

“Elk hunting is good, and it’s been good for a number of years, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” Fish and Game’s Deer/Elk Coordinator Daryl Meints said. 

Fish and Game is currently meeting or exceeding its elk population goals in 17 of 22 elk zones, he said. 

The statewide elk harvest has exceeded 20,000 annually for the past five years, which has not happened since the all-time-high harvests between 1988 and 1996. There is no indication that the 2019 harvest won’t be similar to 2018 and continue that trend. 

During the 2018-19 winter, Fish and Game managers monitored 868 radio-collared elk in 21 areas of the state. Adult cow survival was 98 percent and calf survival was 66 percent. The leading cause of mortality for both adult cow elk and calves was mountain lions.

Meints said part of the reason for the robust herds is that wildlife managers often have more control over elk populations than they do over deer because one bad winter can take a significant percentage of the deer population, but elk tend to be hardier and capable of withstanding harsh winters. 

Meints also noted that Fish and Game’s 2014 elk plan called for more elk in many areas of the state, which coincided with a long string of mild winters prior to 2016-17 that helped elk herds to expand.

“All the stars perfectly aligned,” he said, adding that elk are “a great pioneer species that have expanded into new areas, and they are doing well.” 

Like elk, hunters have adapted and shifted hunting efforts toward “front country” areas where herds are thriving, rather than the backcountry and wilderness areas that drew many elk hunters in the past. 

“Elk and elk hunters have redistributed themselves across the landscape,” Meints said. 

Hunter numbers have correspondingly grown as word has gotten out about Idaho’s elk hunting returning to some of its past glory. Hunter numbers have exceeded 100,000 annually over the past five years. The allotment of nonresident elk tags has already sold out in 2019, and it’s the third straight year that has occurred.  

Aside from healthy herds, part of the draw for elk hunters is Fish and Game’s generous allocation of over-the-counter, general hunt tags, and a broad range of hunting opportunity, particularly for archery hunters. 

“Over the last five to 10 years, Idaho has become a destination for archery elk hunting, and I don’t think there’s a better place for it right now,” Meints said.



Mule deer

Idaho’s mule deer population is currently in a half-empty/half-full situation. Last year’s harvest was within 5 percent (about a thousand animals) of the 10-year average, and this year’s harvest is likely to be similar.

But prior to 2016, Idaho had five consecutive mild winters, which helped build mule deer throughout the state, mostly in the south and central areas where mule deer dominate. Then the 2016-17 winter hit, which took a large segment of that year’s fawn crop. Fish and Game restricted doe harvest in an attempt to quickly rebuild herds, which was reflected in the 2017 deer harvest being 11,573 fewer deer than in the 2016 harvest.

The harvest saw a slight bump in 2018, up about 1,500 mule deer, and this fall’s mule deer harvest is likely to be similar to last year, or a little smaller.

Deep snowfall in early 2019 followed by a prolonged wet and cool spring caused winter fawn survival to take a substantial dip for the second time in three years. 

“That record snowpack that we observed in February did not do the fawns any favors,” Meints said. “It was not like the winter of 2016-17, but we were below the long-term average for fawn survival.”

About 46 percent of radio-collared fawns survived last winter, which is below the 20-year average of 58 percent survival, but still above the 30 percent survival in the 2016-17 winter. 

Fawn survival is significant because yearling, or two-point bucks (which were born last year), typically make up a significant portion of the buck harvest. Many of the fawns that died last winter would have been two-point bucks this fall.  

However, there are still older bucks remaining in the herds, and considering that mule deer have faced two of the worst winters in recent memory over the past three years, harvest will still likely be close to the 10-year average, or slightly below it, for 2019. 

Wildlife managers saw normal winter survival of radio-collared mule deer does, which typically exceeds 90 percent, so if winter weather returns to average, there could be a modest increase in the herds next year. 

It should also be noted that fawn survival was not consistent throughout the state, so some areas were closer to average, while others were below. The number of animals available for hunters and hunter success will vary significantly throughout mule deer country.

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