As usual, Colorado is expected to win the blue ribbon for Rocky Mountain deer this year. Elsewhere, hunters can expect to find fewer deer overall, but in most areas there are still plenty of bucks out there. Here's what to expect in each state.
Rocky Mountain mule deer occupy most of the northern management units while the desert variety dominates the southern units. Due to a prolonged drought, mule deer numbers are down, but recent hunter success has been stable. For example, based on hunter surveys in 2009, 43783 hunters killed 6323 bucks, a 14 percent success rate, while in 1999 47065 hunters killed 5924 bucks, a 13 percent success rate. With two wet winters in a row, biologists are cautiously optimistic the herd is beginning to rebound.
Of Arizona's 73 million acres only 13 million are private, offering hunters nearly unlimited access. In the north, Units 2, 3A/3C, 9, the various Unit 12 and 13 hunts, 19A, 28E, 29E, 29L, 30A L, 30B E, 34A E and 39/40E traditionally lead the pack with hunter success rates of 40-100 percent. Bowhunter success was by far the highest in Unit 13A, a whopping 65 percent. Biologists see no reason for change in these units' continued productivity other than hunter success rates are expected to fall slightly.
In the Prescott National Forest (NF), according to region biologists, some of the best hunting and access is south of Jerome.
Farther south, Units 28, 29, 30 & 34 in the Tucson Region within the Coronado NF produce some of the best desert mule deer bucks; access is nearly unlimited.
Distribution maps show Coues deer (whitetail) range from the Mexican border north to the Mogollon rim — but the core area is in the southeast. The Chiricahua, Santa Rita, Galiuro and Graham mountains and the San Carlos Indian Reservation harbor healthy populations.
Deer hunting is by permit only (draw); a general hunting license is a prerequisite. Left over tags are first-come, first-served.
Mule deer are found throughout with scattered pockets of so-called "Texas" whitetail and Coues deer (whitetail). According to Biologist Bill Taylor, "The north units should see a slight reduction in the total harvest due to a reduction in doe/fawn ratios in 2008-2009. Thanks to a mild, dry winter we saw a significant improvement in 2010, but it won't affect the harvest for 2-3 years. The bad news is the lack of snow combined with poor spring rains will negatively impact the spring green up. Poor spring forage can cause a reduction in antler growth. Hunters should still be able to find mature bucks throughout the NW but record book-quality deer may scarce. Severe drought causes deer to concentrate near permanent water sources."
Biologist Kevin Roddin pretty much echoes Taylor: "In the south, reduced recruitment and the ongoing drought combined with the upward harvest trend the past five seasons [so] this year's harvest will be down somewhat in the opportunity units. In the quality units, which are managed more conservatively, I would expect a normal harvest. Overall, I would say the outlook appears good."
A bill before the New Mexico legislature would allocate just 10 percent of deer licenses to non-residents, and just 2 percent for non-guided hunts. Additionally, it would impose a $90 non-refundable license application fee. In other words, the time to hunt is now.
Deer hunting is by draw only; the full fee is required at time of application.
On average, Nevada is the driest state in the Rockies. Thus, the recent extended drought severely impacted overall herd health; does dropped fewer fawns and fawn survival plummeted, forcing game managers to reduce opportunities in many units. Now, at last, all that has changed. With the current turn-around in moisture levels throughout much of the state, increased population numbers and an overall healthy herd, biologists recommended, "an increase in 2011 quotas." Instead, in a move that left many scratching heads, the Commission chose to ignore the scientific data and reduced tag numbers, (14,900 asked, 11,500 allocated). The bottom line, of course, is deer hunters lose and apparently only the commissioners know why.
Still, though the current trend is upward, biologists are quick to point out most units remain well below management objectives. Buck-to-doe ratios in many units are well below what they were during past peak years. Generally speaking, highest densities and best buck-to-doe ratios occur in northern units.
In the east, bright spots include unit 066, where the Independence, Merritt/Mahogany, Bull Run and Tuscarora Ranges support the highest numbers. Units 071-079 and 091 in Elko County all have good numbers. Hunters should be aware that about 60 percent of the best habitat in Unit 065 in the Sulphur Spring Range was destroyed by wildfire in 1999 and deer numbers have yet to rebound.
In the south, biologists point out Units 161-162 support high numbers but also get a lot of pressure. In Units 172-173 the best hunting is high in Toiyabe and Shoshone mountains. In the west, biologists recommend Units 181-184 in the Cherry Valley and Augusta Peak areas of the Clan Alpine Range, and the upper elevations of the Desatoya Range between Topia Canyon and the Dens.
All deer hunting is by random draw; a general license is prerequisite.
Kent Hersey, Big Game Projects leader, reports, "Overall over-winter survival was good for adults and fawns, so we should have a lot of bucks this fall. We did have some localized high fawn mortality in extreme northern and northeastern counties. We have had excellent spring moisture, which should produce good antler growth."
With new buck/doe ratios set to go into effect next season, 7,000 fewer general season buck permits have been issued for 2011; 4000 less in the northeast and 3,000 less in the south and southeast regions. Biologists say "overall the deer herd is doing well but the continued low number of fawns and bucks per 100 does is a concern, especially in the northeast and south." Still the estimated 290,000 deer statewide falls way short of the 460,000 management objective. Biologists "expect further cuts will be necessary next season in order to reach the new mandate of 18 bucks per 100 does objective."
As has been the case in recent years, in some units the general-season rifle deer hunt will be just five days; Oquirrh-Stansbury, Monroe, Plateau, Boulder/Kaiparowits and South Slope, Vernal. In the rest of the state the general season rifle hunt will be extended to nine days. Biologists, however, appear to disagree somewhat whether or not shorter seasons have much effect on population numbers. Said one biologist who asked to remain anonymous, "In my opinion, all it did was shift unwanted pressure to other units."
Utah deer hunts are by permit only; a current hunting license is prerequisite to entering the draw.
According to biologists "the southeast continues to support robust numbers of both mule deer and whitetail bucks; ratios in the range of 45 bucks to 100 does." As a rule, mule bucks prefer the more open sagebrush foothills and higher country while whitetail bucks prefer brushy canyons, creek and river bottoms seldom far away from the farm and ranch lands. "In recent years we've seen some monster bucks in this region."
My neighbor, Shawn Jones, upon finding trophy mule deer scarce in his unit, decided last day to hunt a brushy creek bottom, and perhaps tag one the "decent" whitetails he'd been glassing. Long story short, that afternoon he loaded a 170+ Booner, called it good and headed for Montana. Where exactly? "Well, lets just say, a couple cattle guards and I'd have needed a Kansas tag instead."
Public lands such as the Comanche National Grasslands, Pike, San Isabel and Rio Grande national forests and wildlife management areas provide a variety of hunting opportunities.
Further north, good hunting and access is found in the Roosevelt and Arapahoe national forests, the Pawnee National Grasslands and various wildlife areas. Trophy bucks live here but numbers do not compare to other regions in the state. Chronic Wasting Disease appears to have stabilized but remains a concern all along the Front Range.
Grand Junction staff rate "the Book Cliffs as certainly the best trophy mule deer hunts in the northwest and probably in the state; the bad news is they might just be the toughest draw."
Public land abounds throughout, so finding a spot to hunt is something of a non-issue. In the Grand Mesa area, GMUs 12, 22, 23 and 24 traditionally produce trophy bucks.
The southwest continues to suffer from past hard winters. Buck/doe ratios, while improving, still don't measure up to the rest of the state. Still, there are plenty of deer and lots of bucks just not the trophy-class bucks found elsewhere throughout the state.
With herd estimates approaching a half-million and hunter success hovering around 50 percent in recent years, one thing that's hard to argue is that deer hunting here is indeed alive and well.
Limited entry hunts are by draw only; for general hunts, over-the-counter licenses are available.
Biologists in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming concur that record numbers of deer perished this winter. Snow and frigid temperatures arrived earlier and lingered longer than usual, extending the time deer were forced to forage on low reserves for scarce food, leading more of them to starve. Based on aerial surveys, fawns and yearlings in northeastern Montana, the upper Snake River basin in Idaho near Yellowstone National Park and the high country of northwestern Wyoming were particularly hard hit.
WGF Biologist Doug Brimeyer said "[t]he estimated death rate doubled among deer fawns in the Jackson area this year, rising to 60 percent or more, from 30 percent. Elsewhere, there was between 45 and 60 percent mortality among mule deer fawns in the Sublette herd and up to 75 percent mortality among fawns in the Wyoming Range herd. Pinedale Wildlife Supervisor John Lund said hunters can expect to find fewer mule deer in the years ahead because of the losses.
Despite the losses, biologists expect good overall general license mule deer hunter success, especially in the Paint Rock, Southwest Bighorns, Basin, Greybull River, Upper Shoshone, Powder River, Pumpkin Buttes, Upper Powder River, South Rock Springs, Unita, Baggs, Laramie Mountains, Project, Thunder Basin and Lance Creek units.
The Powder River and Black Hills units top the whitetail list.
Deer hunters can apply for either a Regional General or Limited Quota license.
Following one of the snowiest winters in recent memory, hunters can expect to see fewer deer overall in the mountains of central Idaho, where biologists put the "mortality rate among mule deer fawns at 90 percent, compared with an average annual mortality rate of 20 percent. Statewide the mule deer fawn/doe winter mortality may be the highest since 1998. The good news is all mule deer population management units are above the 15 bucks per 100 does objective."
Given the severity of this past winter, IDFG biologists expect reduced antlerless and either-sex controlled hunt tag levels for this coming fall in those areas hit hardest last winter. In the upper Snake River basin, Sand Creek and Teton Canyon and in Units 22, 31, 32, and 32A in the Weiser and Brownlee areas, as well as Units 60, 60A, 61, 62, and 62A in the Island Park area are almost certain to see a drop in permit numbers.
Biologists point to the public lands in the western Panhandle region as perhaps the best spot to tag a whitetail buck where there's "traditionally a high percentage are 4- and 5-pointers."
Hunters can purchase either a general deer tag or a whitetail deer tag over the counter but the many mule deer controlled hunts are by draw.
According to Chief Biologist Quentin Kujala, "The brutal winter across northern Montana killed hundreds of deer. We're a few months away from having our deer population estimates complete, but we want hunters who annually plan trips to northern and eastern Montana to expect population declines and thus fewer permits in 2011."
Added to a statewide decade of drought, combined with untimely winter-like storms the past three springs, deer — both mule and whitetails — numbers are down in other parts of the state as well. Biologists also acknowledge that liberal license sales in past years have hurt some deer populations. Thus, over-the-counter doe tags in most of western Montana and the eight-day either-sex period were eliminated.
An outfitter, who asked to remain anonymous, and who has outfitted for years in the popular Missouri Breaks (CMR National Wildlife Refuge) blames "Mountain lions and FWP hunting policies which ran down western deer herds and encouraged excessive numbers of hunters to head east. [These factors] have drastically reduced mule deer numbers."
Ditto the northwest, Region 1, arguably once the best public land deer hunting in the state. Starting last season and continuing at least through the 2011 season, Kujala noted, hunting is "bucks only on a general (A) license, with very few antlerless (B) tags issued."
Probably the best shot hunters have at tagging a trophy mule deer buck on public land is in the limited entry (draw) and units which require hunters to validate their tags, restricting killing a mule deer buck to that unit only.
All non-resident deer licenses are by draw only.