Washington Deer Outlook

Washington Deer Outlook

Our deer season preview will help you make heads and tails of the options you face in your quest to fill your tags. (August 2009)

Toby Knotts' big 9x11 Washington whitetail green-scored a whopping 190. Whitetails now make up 90 percent of the harvest in the upper third of northeastern Washington's Region 1.
Photo courtesy of Toby Knotts.

Some things never change for Evergreen State deer hunters.

Black-tailed deer are the targets in the dense coastal forest and industrial timberlands of western Washington, while mule deer are the game in coulees and ponderosa-flanked foothills east of the Cascade Mountains. And white-tailed deer provide the challenge in the river bottoms and farmlands of eastern Washington.

However, many things that can have a major effect on a hunter's success change from year to year. The severity of preceding winters has a lot to do with how many deer hunters see in mule deer and whitetail country. In recent years, hair loss syndrome among blacktails, and recently mule deer, and blue-tongued disease in whitetails, has reduced the number of animal available to hunters in some areas. Access also becomes an issue when timber companies gate their roads or fires damage backcountry roads.

The regulations set by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and adopted by the Fish and Game Commission also have a major effect on hunting opportunity.

During the upcoming 2009 Washington deer season, several of the above factors will once again play some role in the prospects of hunters.

  • Deer seem to have survived the winter fairly well across central Washington, but there was heavy and prolonged snow in northern Region 1, which could reduce the number of whitetail bucks, as it did last year. Moreover, despite the relatively mild winter in the Okanogan, its herd will remain at reduced numbers because of three previous hard winters.

  • Hair loss syndrome will result in poor hunting prospects for much of Region 3. The disease first appeared in Region 3 in 2003, and has reduced the overall herd size by an estimated 50 percent.

  • This season is the beginning of a new three-year regulations cycle. The commission's approved a number of significant changes recommended by the WDFW. They include more units and longer seasons for muzzleloaders and more archer access to Okanogan hunts but few days overall. And there is also a change in antler restriction in West Klickitat Unit from a 2-pointto a 3-point minimum.</li?

In recent years, Evergreen State hunters have killed more deer, achieved higher success rates and lower day-to-kill numbers in northeastern Washington than in any other corner of the state. You can sum up the reason for the excellent deer hunting in one word: whitetails.

Mule deer may be the signature deer of the American West, but whitetails thrive in the mixture of managed forests, riparian thickets and agricultural land. Whitetails make up 90 percent of the harvest in the northern third of Region 1.

The numbers speak for themselves. During 2007, the last year for which harvest reports are available, hunters killed 8,269 deer in Population Management Unit 13 -- that's more than in any other region! The Mount Spokane Unit accounted for 1,928 bucks and 609 does alone. The Huckleberry Unit gave up 1,573 bucks and 683 does. The 49 Degrees North Units gave up 1,166 bucks and 340 does.

To the north, Kelly Hill, Aladdin, Selkirk and Douglas each contributed more than 300 bucks and about half that many does.

Located in Ferry County to the west, the Sherman Unit is managed for mule deer, and hunters took 786 bucks from it in 2007, and achieved a 25 percent success rate.

In the southeastern corner of the state are the Blue Mountains, the rangelands that surround the mountains, and the lower Snake River. During the 1970s, the Blue Mountains were famous for trophy mule deer. But the population declined significantly after that, and in 1990, the state implemented a 3-point minimum to try to increase recruitment of bucks. The regulation was extended to whitetails the following year. While deer numbers remain slightly depressed, the regulations have increased the number of 4-plus-point mule deer from 4 percent in 1991 to more than 50 percent today.

Access is a problem on virtually all of the private land surrounding the mountains. However, some of the nicest deer taken each year in Region 1 come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' holdings on the lower Snake River, where most access is by boat.

If you live in Washington and you hunt deer, you know all about Okanogan County mule deer. The migratory herd summers in the Cascade Mountains and winters in the Methow Valley. It is historically Washington's largest mule deer herd. As recently as the early 1990s, it gave up more than 6,500 deer.

However, things haven't been the same in the region's celebrated units. After finally recovering early in the decade from a series of devastating 1990s winterkills, the herd once again suffered crippling losses in 2005, '06 and '07.

"I think this year will be pretty similar to last year, with modest success and harvest rates," said Scott Fitkin, the WDFW's Okanogan District wildlife biologist. (Continued)

But Fitkin does have some good news.

"So far the signs are that last winter was easier on the deer than the last three years. I anticipate better fawn survival," said the biologist.

However, additional recruits from last year won't be available to hunters until 2010. Hunters this season will still deal with the effects of the winter mortality from previous winters.

The Sept. 15-25 High Buck Hunt gives modern firearms hunters their first crack at Okanogan mulies. It is located in the huge Pasayten Wilderness Area and is almost entirely a horseback hunt because of the distances between trailheads and hunting areas.

The success rates in the general season in Methow Valley Units, such as Alta, Pearrygin, Chiliwist and Pogue, is determined to a great extent by the weather. Simply put, if snow drives the deer out of the high country during the hunting season, the number of deer killed will be high. On the other hand, a late, mild fall and scant early snow can make for difficult hunting.

In recent years, whitetails have been a significant percent of the harvest in the Okanogan East Unit.

"I'm guessing that it is 50-50 whitetails and mule deer," Fitkin said.

Whitetails are also taken in low-elevation areas west of the Okanogan River. However, Fitkin doesn't believe that whitetails are competing with mule deer in the Okanogan, as some hunters claim. He said that when they do survey flights over classic mule deer habitat, they see very few whitetails.

"I don't think there's a lot of competition. They're more tolerant of humans than mule deer and are just filling in open niches," said Fitkin.

Hunters unfamiliar with the area should obtain a copy of the Okanogan National Forest's Travel Management Plan. It is a comprehensive guide to the open and closed roads in the area.

As Okanogan numbers have declined, many hunters have shifted their sights south, to the Chelan County portion of Region 2. This is especially true of the Manson, Slide Ridge, Entiat, Chiwawa and Swakane units, which have turned out a number of impressive bucks in recent years.

"They are popular areas," said Dave Volson, Chelan District wildlife biologist. "They've had a lot of bucks."

And although the weather last season made things tough for hunters, that could translate into good opportunities this year.

"Last year, we didn't have the typical snow in late October and November," Volson said, "The deer didn't come down into the winter range until December."

He suspects that has resulted inlower-than-average harvests, which could make more deer available this year. Moreover, it looks like the deer got through the rest of the winter in good shape.

"It's been a pretty good winter for the deer," he said. "There was some early heavy snow, but they seem to have pulled through. We anticipate a good year."

The WDFW's Region 3, which extends from Interstate 90 south to the Columbia River and from the Cascade crest east into the shrub-steppe, has traditionally been known for elk hunting. But hunters still managed to take 300 or 400 deer each year from the Manastash, Teanaway, Taneum, Umtanum and Little Naches units. Well, that isn't happening anymore, and you can lay nearly all of the blame on the louse, bovicolor tibialis.

During 2007, hunters only killed 83 deer in the Manastash, 267 in Teanaway, 61 in Taneum, 108 in Umtanum, and 57 in Little Naches.

As with the hair loss syndrome, which affects black-tailed deer in western Washington, the victims of this louse in Region 3 are largely fawns and younger deer. Interestingly, although the blacktails and mule deer display the same symptoms: hair loss, hypothermia and pneumonia, it has been determined that a different species of louse, the fallow deer louse, is responsible in the case of the mule deer.

Since, the problem was first observed in 2003, the loss of fawns has had a dramatic effect on the population of deer in the region.

"Our season last year was fairly poor," said William Moore, assistant district biologist. "We did spring population counts last year on approximately 70 percent of the winter range. We estimate the population has dropped by 50 percent."

The effects aren't evenly distributed. Some areas are at less than 50 percent and others higher.

Not surprisingly, Moore doesn't anticipate a very productive hunting season in 2009, even though the winter was fairly mild. This isn't to say that hunters will entirely avoid the area or that deer won't be taken. But if you're looking for a place to hunt in Region 3 this year, you would do best to stick to the eastern and southern portions of the unit, specifically the Kahlotus, Ringold and especially the Columbia Gorge's East Klickitat and Grayback units. Just be aware that access can be difficult in all of these units.

Southwest Washington's Region 5 has become the state's most productive black-tailed deer region. In 2009, hunters will once again have a better chance of tagging a buck in Region 5 than anywhere else.

According to Eric Holman, Region 5 assistant district wildlife biologist, post-season buck ratios were good, and there didn't seem to be any significant winter-related survival problems.

Historically, Weyerhaeuser and other large tree farms have been the engines that generated good numbers of deer year in and year out in the region. The active timber harvest rotations created a dynamic mixture of openings, new growth and older forest that supported high deer numbers. The companies also permitted vehicle access to nearly all their holdings that weren't under active timber harvest or at high fire risk.

All that began to change a decade or so ago, when timber companies began to install gates on their roads. Since then, gates have become the norm from the Klickitat to the Willapa Hills.

"It's changed how you hunt," Holman said. "It's taken a while to get used to. It used to be considered de facto public land, and people basically used forest roads to hunt. But hunters who have figured out how to hunt the areas, either by hiking or mountain biking, seem to like it. They tell us 'Please don't open any gates.' "

Fortunately, the timber companies still allow you to hunt, and there are plenty of deer behind the gates. This year, as always, the lower elevation industrial forest units along the I-5 corridor will turn out the most deer. In 2007, the most productive were Mossyrock (345), Winston (429), Coweeman (330), Lincoln (429) and Ryderwood (347).

At the eastern end of the region, the Columbia Gorge's Grayback and West Klickitat units accounted for nearly 750 deer between them, and they should also be strong again this year. However, Holman advises hunters to check the new regulations pamphlets carefully because of significant changes for these units. .

Although blacktails are the only deer in Region 6, the state's westernmost GMUs provide a more diverse setting than any other area of the state. Hunters in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains pursue blacktails in the driest coastal area north of the California line, while less than 50 miles across the Olympic Mountains, the Clearwater and Quinault Ridge units get more rainfall -- upwards of 200 inches annually in the foothills -- than anywhere in the Lower 48. In between these extremes, deer hunters can find everything from industrial tree farms to Cascade Mountains to Columbia River saltmarsh and cranberry bogs.

The Skookumchuck Unit is easily the region's most productive. Two years ago, hunters killed more than 850 deer. That is largely because of the Vail Tree Farm, which had been owned by Weyerhaeuser but is now owned by Hancock International.

Other units with low-elevation timberlands that will turn out good numbers of bucks this year incl

ude the Olympia area's Capital Peak and Mashel units and the northeastern Olympics' Olympic GMU. The Satsop and Wynoochee units each yielded more than 400 deer in 2007. Hunters interested in a more challenging hunt can choose the mid-September High Buck Hunt, which opens the Olympic Peninsula's Buckhorn, Brothers, Mount Skokomish, Wonder Mountain and Colonel Bob wilderness areas to an 11-day, 3-point-or-better modern firearms season.

Deer hunters in Region 4 can expect prospects similar to recent years. That means that the Island's, Issaquah and North Sound GMUs will provide the largest harvest, although the best hunting in these units tends to be on private property, and there are widespread firearms restrictions.

More traditional units such as the Stillaguamish and Snoqualmie, which once anchored the Region 4 harvest, will only turn out 150 or so deer. Even fewer deer will be taken in the units to the north.

The district wildlife biologist theorized that the northern units may be less productive because they are affected by cold winds from British Columbia's Frazer Valley and provide less forage.

Actually, the lower numbers in the Snoqualmie Unit probably have as much to do with the access fees charged by the Snoqualmie Tree Farm's owners, Hancock Forest Management, as they do the hunting potential. The current fee is $200 annually. It allows you, your spouse and children year-round access. They are available at Ace Hardware in North Bend. Permits are also available for the White River, and Kapowsin tree farms. Call (800) 782-1493 for details.

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