Utah's Best Deer Hunts

Utah's Best Deer Hunts

Deer populations have outlasted the drought so far, but even with slightly improved habitat conditions, hunters will see fewer first-year bucks this fall.

By Brett Prettyman

It took the discovery of chronic wasting disease in one buck in the northeastern corner of the state to change the No. 1 topic among Utah big-game managers for the last few years.

Sure, extended drought conditions continue to prevent the state's deer herds from rebounding, but biologists have given up waiting for the skies to open and are altering management plans accordingly.

Hunters, it seems, have also accepted that the drought will continue to wreak havoc on Utah's deer populations and have turned their attention to other concerns.

Chronic wasting disease is at the top of the list.

After collecting upwards of 1,500 brain samples from deer and elk in the fall of 2002, Utah Division of Wildlife officials announced in February that one deer sample had come back positive for the disease.

"We are disappointed to have found it, but not surprised," said Boyde Blackwell, big-game manager for the UDWR's northeastern region where the animal came from. "We will continue to closely monitor populations throughout the state, but particularly in those areas along the Colorado border."

Here's a quality buck from the 2002 season! Wade Hanks shot this trophy 5x5 in the Vernon Unit. The deer gross-scores 200 points. Photo courtesy of Wade Hanks

Officials, who have been testing harvested animals for chronic wasting disease since 1998, intensified monitoring when it was discovered in a population of deer near Craig, Colo., in early 2002.

The one positive sample in Utah came from a buck harvested on Diamond Mountain, north of Vernal and close to the Colorado border. Soon after the test results, officials headed for the area where the positive animal came from and collected 84 more samples. The results of those samples all came back negative in April.

"CWD does not generally cause big die-offs in deer. It is in such a small percentage of the populations that it doesn't cause catastrophic declines," said UDWR chief of big game Jim Karpowitz. "I do not expect it to have a huge impact in the herds, although we may have to eventually do some control to help prevent it from spreading."

Karpowitz is quick to point out that research so far on the disease has not been linked to humans. "It's important to remember that there is currently no evidence that CWD can be naturally transmitted to humans or livestock," he said.

The UDWR has an updated CWD pamphlet available at its offices across the state. Karpowitz encourages hunters to pick up the pamphlet and to become more informed about the disease on the Internet.

Back to the drought.

The one positive about a lack of snow is a high survivability rate through the winter, but it also means less moisture and less forage for deer in the spring, when does need extra nourishment for new fawns.

"Winter survival will be good, but fawn production was poor last year and I expect it may be again this year," Karpowitz said. "We have been missing the yearling age-class for several straight years, and hunters are making sure we know it."

To reduce the number of animals harvested in a region already struggling to reach management objective goals, the Wildlife Board authorized a five-day hunt (Oct. 18-22) encompassing the entire Southeastern Region.

Concerned hunters proposed the reduction in the length of the hunt. The five-day hunt has been used to reduce pressure in several units in the Southern Region for the last few years, but officials seem split on the benefits.

"We already had a five-day hunt on the Abajo and LaSal mountains, and we believe that led to a shift of pressure to other areas in the region," said Bill Bates, big-game manager for the Southeastern Region. "About 85 percent of the harvest usually happens in the first five days of the hunt. Theoretically, that means we might be able to save 15 percent of the annual harvest."

Mike Welch, big-game manager in the Northern Region, does not feel that a reduction will make a major difference.

"If you only need a little bit, it might help, but it has not improved buck-to-doe ratios in areas where we already have the shorter hunt," Welch said.

Two units in the Southern Region (Pine Valley and Zion) will also be limited to five days of hunting.

Speaking about the southern part of the state: Utah residents will have a greater chance of purchasing a permit to hunt in the state's Southern and Southeastern regions in 2003.

The Wildlife Board voted to take away a combined total of 600 deer permits between the two regions to create an equal percentage of non-resident permits in each region and to make permits available to residents that were not being purchased by non-resident hunters.

"Since we went to the 97,000 permit cap, 10 percent of the total number of general buck deer permits in Utah have been available to non-residents. In the past, however, that distribution hasn't been equal among the regions," Karpowitz said. "There was a higher percentage of non-resident permits in the Southern and Southeastern regions, and a lower percentage in the Northern and Central regions. The action the Board took makes 10 percent of the permits in each region available to non-residents."

An additional 400 permits were made available for residents in the Southern Region, and 200 were added to the resident total in the Southeastern Region.

Non-residents will see an increase of 500 additional permits in the Central region and 100 more in the Northern Region. If the additional non-resident permits were not purchased by the second big-game draw in May, then they were made available to residents.

"Non-residents have never taken all of the permits available to them for those two regions, so increasing the number of non-resident permits for them shouldn't affect residents," Karpowitz said. "Many of these permits will end up going to residents."

The board also reduced the number of limited-entry deer permits across the state. A reduction of 242 permits made the total of limited-entry permits to 856. The move was made to help populations affected by the drought recover.

Those reductions were in part based on statewide post-season buck-to-doe ratios.

The Central and Southeastern regions both carried ratios of 13:100. The Northeastern was next at 14:100, the Northern Region followed at 15:100 and the Southern Region was tops at 16:100. The region statewide average was 14.2:100.

Unit-wise, the Southwest Desert in the Southern Region had the highest overall ratio at 24:100, while the Oquirrh/Stansbury Unit in the Central Region was the lowest across the state, with just 10 bucks per 100 does. "We are close to our statewide objective. Having 15 bucks to 100 does is pretty good compared to 10 years ago," Karpowitz said.

While the percentage of 3-point-or-better bucks among the male population may seem like a positive look into the future, it probably more accurately illustrates the absence of yearling animals in the herds right now.

Division officials have set an objective of 30 percent for the number of 3-point bucks among the population. Post-season data from the 2002 hunt show that not one unit in the state was below that level.

The high was 71 percent in the Box Elder Unit of the Northern Region. That was up from 49 percent in 2001 and up from 24 percent in 1998.

Other impressive units with high percentages of 3-point bucks included: Morgan-South Rich (69); East Canyon (69); Southwest Desert (66); Fillmore-Oak Creek (61); Paunsaugunt (60). The state lows were Zion (30) and Oquirrh/Stansbury (32).

Fawn-to-doe ratios also carry significance when officials decide permit numbers and season lengths.

"Drought has led to declining fawn production for about five years in a row," Karpowitz said. "Five years ago the average was 70 fawns per 100 does. Last year it was 40."

The winter of 2002-03 may not have been 100 percent of normal - and even if it was it would take much more than that to pull Utah out of the drought - but it was wetter than previous years, particularly in the southern half of the state.

Through March the following drainage's were at the following average snow pack: Weber/Ogden 59 percent; Provo/Utah Lake/Jordan River 64; Tooele Valley/Vernon Creek 57; Green River 84; Duchesne River 65; Price/San Rafael 72.

"We did have what appeared to be a good, wet spring. I would expect to see an improvement in fawn production," Karpowitz said. "Really what we are looking for in high fawn survival is the condition of the doe in the time leading up to the birth. If she is in good shape, the fawns will have a higher birth rate and will be more likely to survive until they can outrun predators."

Officials have frequently stated that predators alone usually do not make a significant impact on deer populations, but when numbers are already down, predation can make it downright impossible for herds to recover.

"On some units where we are really struggling it can really hurt. We have predator management plans and we increase the number of animals killed when deer numbers are low," Karpowitz said. "When the herds on a particular unit are less than 50 percent of the objective we can target that area for additional removal of predators."

Earlier discussions about further dividing Utah's five big-game hunting regions into 25 units have been tabled as UDWR officials work on a new statewide deer plan.

"The old plan is kind of out of date. We need a new direction and the key component is an initiative to improve deer habitat around the state," Karpowitz said.

Here is a region-by-region look at how deer herds are looking for the 2003 deer hunts.

"Typically we have fawn-to-doe ratios in the 80s, but we had a terrible fawn crop in the Cache (42) and Ogden (42) units, at least terrible for northern Utah," Welch said. "The Box Elder was also low (60)."

Welch said those three units had significant winter loss because of animals being in poor condition going into the season.

"The other units look good if not a little better," Welch said. "The highest was Kamas at 70. The rest were around 60."

The Kamas also had the highest buck-to-doe ratio at the post-season counts in 2002 at 21. The Cache had the lowest at 12.

Welch wanted to remind hunters that the Northern Region is dominated by private land and that permission must be obtained before wandering on to private property.

Cooperative Wildlife Management Units are also prevalent in the Northern Region. "There are like 93 in the entire state and we have 54," Welch said. "People hunting up here should know the area where they are hunting so they aren't trespassing. Besides, when you go into new area, you are less likely to be successful."

Welch said he is hearing more and more about whitetail deer mixed among Utah's mule deer herds. "The first whitetail was probably harvested in 1962. They are just another kind of deer," he said. "If sportsmen are willing to augment the population with whitetail, then why not? There is a growing issue of whether we develop a whitetail plan or just treat them like another deer species."

"We had an easy winter and the deer are holding their own," said Central Region big-game manager Steve Flinders. "The forage base may not be stellar but some good spring moisture and summer rain would go a long way to helping the herds recover."

Like the other regions, Flinders' territory has problems with fawn production; he says hunters will probably see fewer yearlings in the field this fall.

"We have lost a lot of fawns over the last few years," he said. "That yearling buck segment will take a while to replace."

Buck-to-doe ratios seem strong in the Central Region with the exception of the Oquirrh/Stansbury Unit, where only 10 males were counted for every 100 females.

Flinders says the biggest concern in the Central Region remains habitat. "We continue to look for projects and improvement through funding that will give us our biggest bang for the buck," Flinders said. "We need to get into habitat protection and find ways to reduce the conflict between livestock and deer and elk. Habitat can be a crucial component of helping animals get through difficult times caused by drought."

"This part of the state has definitely been hit hard by drought," Blackwell said. "We had some greenup in the spring, and it will be interesting to see how that helps the situation."

All units in the Northeastern Region carried a post-season buck-to-doe ratio of 14, with the exception

of Nine Mile Anthro, which had just 12.

All eyes are on the Northeastern Region as the example of what to do as chronic wasting disease invades the state.

Regional big-game manager Bill Bates wants hunters to know that just because the region has gone to a five-day hunt, it doesn't mean there are no bucks to be had.

"Don't be discouraged," he said. "Hopefully, this drought turns around and we can change it back, but right now this may help. We still have deer and, in fact, we have some good numbers of older bucks."

Bates said he expects hunters to achieve about the same rate of success as last year (about 30 percent).

At 17, Range Creek is the only unit above the objective of 15 bucks to 100 does. The La Sal Mountains, San Juan/Abajo and Manti are all below the objective, but none are in the single digits.

Bates warns it will take a while to replace the yearling age class that has been lost in a large proportion over the last few years.

Officials in the Southeastern Region are also closely monitoring for chronic wasting disease in the units that run along the Colorado border.

Fawn production has dropped to 42 fawns to 100 does for the entire region, but there are some highlights, such as the previously mentioned Southwest Desert. Pine Valley is also above 20.

"Hopefully, this is the bottom end of the trend that started at 71 fawns five years ago and has dropped every year since," said Southern Region big-game manager Niles Sorensen. "We had a good spring. I'm hoping that will give us some good growth and get us going in a different direction."

The winter was so mild through much of the season that many of the deer in the Southern Region did not move out of the high country. This allowed the animals to eat browse they may not have had at lower elevations. By the time the big spring storms hit, the animals had enough energy to fight the cold.

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