The quadruple slam of droughts, wild fires, low fawn survivals and summertime weather that stretches deep into October hunting season is having an effect on Northwest deer hunters — some more than others.
Wildlife experts in Washington and Oregon are not telling deer hunters to take up tennis, but they are warning them to be ready for changes that have been developing for the past several years — changes that will lead mule-deer addicts to think this year about hunting whitetails and blacktails.
FIRE, WEATHER AND BIG BUCKS
Washington mule-deer hunters are being especially hard hit by environmental upper cuts, including another round of wildfires burning critical winter range, while blacktail hunters are looking at stable numbers and decent hunting prospects in the thick, wet brush on the west side of the state. Whitetails seem to be yo-yoing; their numbers are up in some areas, while down in others, but stand as fit hunters’ best options for tagging venison in the late season across the northeast counties. Washington is seeing a decrease in mule deer and some whitetail numbers, but its blacktail population is stable. Oregon is still in recovery mode from the 2016 winter kill but sees most deer herds stabilizing or slightly increasing their numbers.
Another unexpected anomaly is the persistence of summer-like weather and temperatures deep into the mid-October deer season. Snowless hunting and warm temperatures have been extending into early November in many areas, delaying mule-deer migrations and hampering hunters in brushy lowland areas.
On the west side of the Cascade Range it’s dollars, not wild fires, that are reducing hunter turnout in some of the biggest blacktail hunting areas in the Northwest. Many timber companies that previously allowed public hunting have shut their gates to anyone who does not buy an access permit. Those permits, which cost several hundred dollars, are discouraging a lot of hunters from going afield at all and concentrating others on non-timber company lands.
Northern Declines Level Off
The news for whitetail hunters in northwest Washington is that the decline in whitetail numbers may have leveled off. Last year, hunter success ran higher than 30 percent in four hunting units, led by GMU 108, where a full one-third of the hunters got their whitetails.
Where whitetail numbers are rebounding north of Spokane, hunting pressure is likely to follow suit, leading the big-game managers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to see an eventual uptick in the total number of whitetails tagged, especially during the late season when tracking snow falls.
But the blackening wildfires that hit hard in Okanogan County are still having an impact on Washington’s prized mule-deer range. The popular Pearrygin, Chiliwist, Chewuch and Pogue GMUs lost a large amount of mule-deer habitat.
WDFW’s management plan for these units “… is to maintain a stable to slightly decreasing population in response to the landscape’s reduced ability to support deer.” The saving grace, according to WDFW, was that the fires occurred in mid-summer, allowing two months of browse green-up before winter. And hunting pressure bottomed out in this fire-scarred region last year, which should produce an unusually high survival rate of bigger bucks available this year.
Fires Rip Central Cascades
Yakima and Kittitas counties includes prime summer range in the central Cascades that was just beginning to show recovery from a decade of deer declines when two of the biggest wildfires in the region’s history ripped through in summer 2017. High-country summer range in the Teanaway, upper Crow Creek, Norse Peak, Fife’s Ridge, Bumping River and American Ridge ranges burned most of the summer. The fires were intense, destroyed miles of critical brush and browse food sources — a shortage sure to affect fawn survival, hunter access and likely to push more summering animals into mid-elevations where food and shelter is found.
South of the Yakama Nation Reservation, the East Klickitat Unit382 has also not recovered from a severe weather hit several years ago and WDFW worries that these deer, a blacktail-mulie hybrid, are going to remain low for another season or so. The West Klickitat Unit 578 blacktail population continues stable, along with Grayback Unit 388, but expect to hunt hard for a blacktail buck in the deeply forested mountains of Lewis River 560, Wind River 574 and Siouxon 572. Hunter success here runs 15 to 20 percent, largely because the clear-cuts that a couple of decades ago ideal provided ideal blacktail habitat and food are overgrown with mature trees shading out critical forage.
If you’re looking for a big blacktail buck during the extended season in November you should scout hard in Ryderwood 530, Lincoln 501, Winston 520 and Coweeman 550. WDFW states these three units are “… among the best in the state for blacktails.”
One of the most popular and productive blacktail units in the state is Weyerhaeuser’s Vail Tree Farm. A maximum of 800 permits are sold at $250 each. Hancock Timber Resources also require an access permit for motorized access to the popular Kapowsin and Eatonville Tree Farms and the not-so-productive White River Tree Farm near Enumclaw. White River is now owned by Muckleshoot Indian Reservation. Permits vary from $250 to $375.
West Slope Cascades
On the west slope of the Cascades, south and east of Seattle, blacktail hunting always takes place during the second season in November. There is some public land in this area, mostly national forest set in high mountains. A lot of steep peaks stand between big bucks in the alpine climes, but those who scout can find trophy bucks. Typically, these areas will be snowbound by the November re-opening, when most of the bucks migrate to lower river valleys for the second season.
Closer to the coast, WDFW says the mix of timber company permit land, and state, federal and private hunting areas holds some very large blacktail bucks for hunters who can hold off popping the first forked-horn that walks out.
On the far southeast side of the state, some of the biggest mule-deer bucks and hunter success ratios higher than 40 percent are developing in the sprawling private ranches and farms of the Palouse.
These vast agricultural areas and horizon-to-horizon fields don’t look like typical Northwest deer country, but they support some of the biggest muley bucks in the state. The Mayview GMU 145 is almost all wheat fields, but success for rifle hunters with access runs to 50 percent — double the state average. And some of these muley bucks are huge. The trick is getting permission to hunt.
Southeast Weather Hits Hard
Oregon is still recovering from 2016-17, the “fourth most severe winter on record in terms of days of snow and daily temperatures,” according to the game manages of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Especially hard hit were mule deer in the Blue Mountains regions of Baker, northern Harney and Malheur counties, and some parts of Union County. The die-off was so severe, ODFW ordered emergency tag reductions for last fall’s hunts, and recovery is still in process.
Deer survival was also at or slightly below the five-year average in western Oregon, where the winter was also generally colder and wetter than normal. The hot, dry summer of 2016 was followed by record monthly rain and snow in areas, and winter conditions stuck around much later than in recent years. Unfortunately, the state’s wet weather did not continue into summer 2017 when several monster wild fires broke out, especially in prime southwest blacktail hunting units.
The burns will provide great deer habitat several years from now; but, in the short-term, food and cover are at a premium, and ODFW is advising hunters to go elsewhere and stay out of the new burns.
Coastal Deer Densities Run High
On the coast, it appears the buck-to-doe ratio in the Tioga Unit is down some but still high enough for a good season if weather is cooperative. Deer surveys indicate deer densities are highest in the Sixes and Powers Units.
Deer on the north coast Saddle Mountain, Wilson, and western Trask wildlife management units survived a very cold, long winter with very little post-winter mortality, according to ODFW. Still, deer densities and buck survival are moderate.
ODFW officials say they believe “… the best bet for buck hunting will be the Wilson WMU. A lot of recent clear-cut timber harvest lies on state-forest lands, so be sure to take a look at ODFW lands when scouting. Deer densities tend to be highest in the eastern portions of these units, according to field surveys.
Muleys in the Northeast
In Oregon’s prized northeast mule-deer country, the outlook is poor to fair in most areas of Beulah, Sumpter, Keating, Pine Creek, and Lookout Mountain wildlife units. v
Over-winter survival was poor in all units, with average fawn ratios of 9 per 100 adults counted in the spring. This was much lower than last year’s count of 33 fawns per 100 adults. Adult doe mortality was just above 35 percent, determined from GPS-collared deer, and yearling bucks were reduced dramatically.
To make it even more difficult, dry, hot summer conditions at mid- to lower elevations will make hunting excruciatingly difficult early in the fall season.
Last year a 25 percent winter kill resulted in a 40 percent reduction in deer tags for this year. Tags also were cut by 35 percent in the Malheur River unit due to high winterkill, but ODFW still expects an average season in Steens Mountain, Juniper, Beatys Butte, Wagontire, Warner and Whitehorse units.
Central Area Objectives Exceeded
Rough winters also took a toll on deer in parts of the Central Area, but heavy snowpack and great spring and summer conditions bode well for this summer and next fall.
Last year’s severe winter reduced fawn survival rates by 30 percent across the district. That means fewer yearling bucks in the woods.
This year, buck-to-doe ratios — a district-wide average of 19 bucks per 100 does — remain above ODFW objectives in the Maury and Ochoco units but below goal in the Grizzly unit. Spring and summer conditions have been great, with the heavy snowpack leading to plenty of water available on the landscape, but the hunter harvest is expected to show slightly below average throughout the district. Deer populations continue to be lower than wanted, due to habitat loss, poaching, predation, disease and road kill, according to ODFW.
Tough Times in the Columbia River Gorge
The mountainsides along the Columbia River gorge are in tough deer shape. West Biggs and Maupin Unit are seeing declines in deer numbers the last couple years, with drought and hard winter taking a toll, along with poor fawn recruitment.
“Expect to find fewer young bucks,” ODFW warns and adds, “Buck ratios are the highest in the John Day Canyon, but there’s a lot of private land requiring permission here. The area around Hood River was seared by a monster wildfire, and access to even trail systems has been restricted.
White River unit was poor last year and is expected to be again this year. Hunt high and expect to find bucks in pockets, ODFW recommends.
Farther south in Klamath County deer are stable or slightly decreasing, with lower fawn survival and hunter success expected on yearling bucks this hunting season. Yearlings comprise more than half the bucks taken here. Best bet is the Interstate Unit, where the fall buck-to-doe ratio — 26 bucks per 100 does — was the highest in Klamath County.
The Keno and Klamath Falls units also carry bucks-to-does ratios over management objective; however, deer populations in these and surrounding units is still lower than ODFW wants.
ADJUSTING TO CLIMATE CHANGE
In both states climate change is having an effect on hunting success. For several years, instead of enjoying tracking snow and migrating deer, hunters have found mild summer-like weather and deer that stay in the high country. Rather than being able to wait for snow to start mountain bucks migrating, successful hunters are going into the high-country hoping to find bucks on alpine summer range.
Poor mule-deer survival and low fawn counts, coupled with summer-like hunting weather, means many hunters are giving up October mule-deer camps and waiting for better conditions during the November late hunts for lowland blacktails and whitetails this year.