Northern Rockies Deer Preview

Northern Rockies Deer Preview

Drought continues to plague deer habitat in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, but mule and whitetail deer are doing well. With a few exceptions, conditions are stacked for an excellent season.

A mule deer buck browses on shrubs. What northern Rocky Mountain herds could use this year is some wet weather.
Photo by Jack Ballard

As it has for the past half-decade, drought continues to be the underlying issue of all discussions relating to big-game habitat conditions and populations in the northern Rockies and Plains states. However, when it comes to deer, low precipitation often affects mulies and whitetails in different ways. A creature highly adapted to agriculture and riparian areas, western whitetails typically don't suffer as much during drought years as their big-eared cousins. By contrast, mule deer often inhabit arid, semi-desert regions where a downturn in moisture can drastically affect the volume and quality of summer and winter forage.

While mule deer populations are beginning to feel the strain of the lingering drought in a number of regions in our forecast area, populations are actually holding up better in most places than one might imagine. The worst-case scenario for deer is a dry summer followed by a cold winter with lots of snow cover which requires animals to expend increased energy foraging and keeping warm.

Thankfully, those conditions haven't materialized on any large scale. Mild winters have allowed deer to sneak through with relatively low mortality in most places, keeping a widespread die-off at bay. Thus, the outlook for fall deer hunting is actually very favorable for both mule and whitetail deer across most of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Whether you're a resident or visiting hunter, there will be plenty of bucks for the taking this season -- if you concentrate your efforts in the right areas.

WYOMING

Of all the Western states, Wyoming's reputation as a destination for high country mule deer hunting is unsurpassed. But with the drought, does the reputation still match reality?

Compared to the historically more arid portions of the state at low elevations, mule deer in the alpine regions are still doing well. "Statewide, our mule deer are being pressured by drought," explains Jeff Obrecht, information officer with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, "but not so much the higher elevation deer; doe production among those is still good."

For trophy mule deer hunters, backcountry hunts in the Jackson area (Region H) should be good this fall. "We get some nice deer taken out of there every year," observes Obrecht. He goes on to note that the numbers of monster mulies in the region don't rival those of the 1980s and early '90s, but hard-working hunters still have the chance to connect with the deer of a lifetime. Non-residents considering the Jackson area should be aware that much of the high-elevation mule deer habitat occurs in designated wilderness areas where a misguided state law requires non-resident hunters to hire an outfitter or guide.

Over on the western border of the state, trophy hunters are also accustomed to finding good numbers of big bucks in the Salt River Range and the Wyoming Range. But unlike the rest of the state, these mountain strongholds were tough on deer last winter. Although there are still some big bucks to be found, the next few seasons aren't likely to produce mature animals on the same level as they have in the past. The overall population certainly isn't in jeopardy, but last year's winter mortality was significant enough that some trophy hunting consultants have (temporarily, at least) downgraded the status of these historically stellar ranges (in Region G) as destinations for trophy hunters.

On the low-elevation side of things, Wyoming mule deer are definitely feeling the effects of drought. However, with the exception of the Cokeville/Kemmerer area in the western part of the state, animals enjoyed what Obrecht describes as a "cakewalk winter." Although ranchers and game managers would love to see a heavy snow season to replenish ground moisture, the last several winters have been dry and open. Even though deer have entered the cold months in relatively poor shape, numbers have remained remarkably good thanks to the easy winters.

Nonetheless, hunters can expect to find fewer deer in the northeastern country around Gillette where Obrecht reports "numbers have declined." He's quick to point out that "it's still very productive country" and that the Game & Fish Department is actually looking to keep harvest levels in the area up to match the deer population to current habitat conditions. When moisture and forage bounce back, deer herds tend to rebound more quickly if they contain fewer numbers of healthy animals rather than higher numbers that are stressed.

Although not necessarily triggered by low overall numbers, mule deer antler-point restrictions will greet Cowboy State hunters in several units this year. Units that will enter the restricted ranks this year are areas 163 and 169 (southwest of Kaycee) and areas 91-97 in the Sweetwater River (Lander) area. Management officials don't see the restrictions as permanent changes motivated by trophy hunting, but are instead trying to increase buck-to-doe ratios in the areas to bolster reproduction.

Speaking of reproduction, no one in wildlife management questions the reproductive capacity of white-tailed deer. "Whitetails are faring well overall," says Obrecht, "but not everyone likes that. Most non-resident hunters want mule deer." Like them or not, whitetails seem to be everywhere on the east slope of the Bighorns around Sheridan and Buffalo where managers are hoping to increase the harvest on antlerless deer. Hunters seeking a change of pace from the mule deer scene or simply seeking to put up a supply of winter meat will find great hunting for whitetails this season in the Bighorn foothills and all across the eastern third of the state.

IDAHO

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? For Idaho mule deer hunters, it's largely a matter of how one interprets statistics.

If you'd like it half-empty, dwell on the fact that the long-term trend for mule deer populations continues to slide. If you'd like it half-full, consider that deer of the long-eared variety are actually more numerous in some places than they were a few years ago.

For the short-term at least, Brad Compton, Idaho's state big game manager, is optimistic about mule deer hunting. "Our 2004 harvest was up over 2003," he points out. "We took about 28,500 mule deer statewide in 2004. This season I wouldn't be surprised to see the harvest top 30,000."

What's the reason behind Compton's optimism? In large measure, it's due to the extremely mild winter that brought mule deer to the spring in great shape. "Although the 50 percent snowpack in most places isn't h

elping the moisture situation, it did allow us to set records for mule deer fawn survival in the '04-'05 winter." Come fall, those fawns will be bouncing the coulees as yearling bucks and does -- tender winter meat for the freezer and bountiful opportunities for youthful hunters to enjoy a first big-game kill.

Of course, not all Idaho mule deer are flourishing. Compton notes that drought has taken a toll on the extreme southeastern corner of the state (Bear Lake region). Hunters will likely find fewer deer in southeastern units this season, a phenomenon that will also occur in many of the more arid regions all across the southern third of the state.

As has been true in previous years, hunters will find the greatest potential for success and the best odds at pulling into the driveway with a head-turning trophy mule deer in those units managed as controlled hunts. Which are the best of these? Compton points to Units 11, 40, 42, 44, 45, 54 and 62 as reputation areas where hunters should find good numbers of mature bucks this fall.

A quick review of harvest statistics from previous years confirms his perspective. In 2003 (the last year stats were available at this writing), hunters in Unit 11 logged an impressive 85 percent success. Of the bucks taken, nearly 80 percent were 4-point or larger, about 40 percent were five points or larger. Unit 45 also produced excellent hunting. Success ran around 83 percent, with 85 percent of the bucks at four points or larger and nearly one-quarter of them boasting five points or more. Unit 62, a hot-dog destination of scenic beauty and big bucks near the Idaho line, found better than 80 percent of hunters filling their tag. 93 percent of the bucks taken were 4 point or better, including an unofficial report of one behemoth buck sporting about 250 inches of antler as scored by the Boone and Crockett Club's system.

But controlled-hunt mule deer hunters aren't the only ones who stand fine odds of taking a better than average buck this fall. "Our long-term trend for whitetails is on the increase," Compton observes. A significant part of that increase is occurring in the northern portion of the state where populations have at last recovered from the disastrous 1996-97 winter. Gem State hunters took 19,000 whitetails statewide in 2004 and Compton is predicting that this fall's season will produce similar or better numbers.

Hunters should find superb general-season hunting all across whitetail habitat in the northern third of the state. Compton points out that Units 1, 2, 3 and 10a are traditional producers of big bucks, especially for hunters who hunt the last days of the season when the rut is in full swing.

Once again, harvest statistics from previous years fully support his claims. In units 1, 2, and 3 hunter success generally runs around 30 percent, with about 25 percent of the bucks taken sporting five points or more on each antler. In addition to these "no-secret" trophy-growing units, sportsmen should find good numbers of big bucks in Units 4A, 8 and 11. Although hunter success is slightly lower in 4A (around 20 percent), 1-in-4 of the bucks killed is a 5-point or better.

In terms of quality and quantity, Unit 11A may be the top pick in the state. Success rates for this stellar unit hover around 45 percent, with nearly 70 percent of the harvest occurring on 4-point bucks or better, 25 percent of which boast at least one additional antler tine.

No matter where you hunt in Idaho this fall, make sure you check the regulations before scheduling your days in the field. Opening day for deer season will change from Oct. 5-10 -- see current regulations for details. Also be aware that the state has adopted a motorized vehicle rule for hunters, which requires them to keep full-sized vehicles and ATVs on established roads to protect rangelands from erosion and habitat degradation and to ensure that the interests of those who want to hike or horseback to roadless locations are respected -- worthy goals agreeable to any ethical hunter.

MONTANA

If drought is bad for deer, why hasn't a population bust materialized in the Treasure State? After all, precipitation totals are at fractions of their normal levels and have been for several years. In a nutshell, deer have not only dodged typical drought effects (low fawn survival and winter mortality) but are actually thriving across most of the state. Generally speaking, hunters this year will find conditions similar to last fall, with robust numbers of mulies and whitetails available in nearly every hunting district.

In western Montana, look for excellent whitetail hunting this season with plenty of mature bucks awaiting patient hunters. In the northwestern region, John Fraley, an information officer with the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Kalispell, reports that the whitetail trend is "still on the upswing" and is approaching the high population numbers found in the area just prior to the devastating 1996-'97 winter. Although trophy quality dropped in the years following that disaster, that situation has reversed itself as well. Last season, hunters brought right at 1,100 whitetail bucks through northwest check stations, the second highest number since the establishment of permanent checking facilities. Of those, almost 75 percent had at least four points on each antler.

Thanks to good fawn survival and a healthy carryover of adult deer, whitetail hunting should again be excellent in the northwest this season. Fraley notes that the Swan Valley "is always a great bet for whitetails," but advises those seeking an exceptional buck to be patient. "Hunt the last two weeks of the season," he recommends. "The majority of the big deer come through the check stations during the rut."

This fall's rut should also be very kind to Treasure State mule deer hunters. With just few exceptions, mulies are faring well statewide. Where are those problem areas? In Region 3, wildlife management sources report that despite favorable wintering conditions and habitat, mule deer numbers in the Bridger Mountains are slipping. Up in Region 6, fawn recruitment was low in 2004 in the Glasgow area, which will result in fewer yearling bucks this season. Hunters may also notice slightly fewer deer overall, but northeastern Montana hunters should still have a good season.

In Region 5, the Billings area and the prairie habitat north of the Yellowstone River has been more heavily impacted by drought than any other region in the state. Even though winter has been essentially non-existent in this area for the past several years, both adult mule deer numbers and fawn production appear to be dropping. Biologists also report that due to poor forage conditions, antler growth on mature bucks is poor.

However, mule deer populations in the mountains and foothills are still doing well. Last season I took a youth on his first deer hunt in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains west of Absarokee. Not only did Judah drop his first buck with a single shot, he got plenty of practice spotting mule deer as we looked over at least 30 head by mid-morning.

With the exception of the areas noted above, the outlook for both mule and whitetail deer hunting is excellent all across eastern Montana. Last season, I traveled extensively in the southeastern corner of the state and believe that deer

numbers were as high as they've been in a decade. Hunting with my two young sons in the Alzada area in early November, we located numerous deer every day, including high numbers of bucks that appeared to be in the 2 1/2-year-old and older category. On the third day of the hunt, I took a tall-antlered, classic 5x5 just before nightfall. Hunters should find similar opportunities this season pretty much anywhere south of Miles City to the Wyoming border.

No matter which state or region within it you choose, don't miss this year's deer hunt. At this writing the hot, dry shroud of drought is still draped over the western landscape. The prospects for deer hunting are excellent this fall, but the future remains uncertain. If the saying "let's get while the gettin's good" applies to deer hunting, it holds doubly this season.

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