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Idaho Fish and Game

F&G proactively eliminates antlerless hunts and takes other measures to help eastern Idaho big game


Wildlife managers reacted to the severe winter conditions and eliminated many of the proposed antlerless hunt opportunities prior to 2023-2024 big game season setting

While most people probably didn’t predict the severity of this winter, Fish and Game has been mindful of extreme snow depths in eastern Idaho and proactively eliminated most antlerless hunts initially proposed for the 2023-2024 season setting process.

“Before this winter hit, we’d been seeing steady growth in mule deer herds in southeast Idaho,” said Toby Boudreau, Fish and Game’s Deer and Elk Coordinator. “So much so that we were ready to propose additional antlerless hunt opportunities for the 2023 fall season.”

Mule deer on winter range

But by early January, it became clear that winter was going to be hard on eastern Idaho’s deer and elk. And on the cusp of setting seasons for the next two years, Fish and Game wildlife managers chose to eliminate many proposed antlerless hunts. 

Rolling back additional antlerless hunt opportunities

Monitoring mule deer survival throughout winter is an important tool for preparing for the fall hunting seasons. While mule deer survival has been near average across most of the state, record snows in southeast Idaho and similar weather in the Upper Snake region paints a different picture.

Eastern Idaho’s mule deer were rebounding from harsh winters in 2017 and 2019 and making progress, and Fish and Game staff have been closely monitoring these herds and seeing more deer — comprised mostly of fawns, does and younger-aged bucks. 

Antlerless hunts have been off the table since those two severe winters, and Fish and Game managers were cautiously optimistic that a mild-to-normal winter could allow them to restore some antlerless hunting opportunities for next fall. 

“We continued to monitor doe and fawn survival in that part of the state, right up through December and January, and were prepared to make changes if the weather took a turn,” Boudreau said. “By mid-January, though, the weather did just that.”

While December and January aren’t as critical for fawn survival as March and April, it was soon obvious that this winter would be bad for eastern Idaho’s mule deer, but only time would tell how bad it would get.

doe and fawn mule deer deep in snow

Winter monitoring and public involvement help shape big game seasons

Wildlife managers proactively decided to eliminate many proposed antlerless hunt opportunities prior to 2023-2024 big game season setting.

“We recognized the sensitivity of antlerless mule deer hunts, and ultimately didn’t feel comfortable offering antlerless opportunities in the eastern part of the state,” Boudreau said.

Boudreau added that winter could set rebounding herds back a few years, and the department will continue to monitor the effects in the upcoming years. 

Jordan Cheirrett, Fish and Game Commissioner in the Southeast Region, said he appreciated the feedback he received from hunters concerned about herds impacted by the weather. 

“I’ve heard from a lot of hunters who didn’t like the idea of opening up an antlerless season after we’ve had such a big winter,” he said. “Since 2017, we’ve been trying hard to increase herd sizes and bring back quality hunting opportunities to the southeast.”

Severe winters impacting deer, elk and pronghorn have been the front-page story in other western states as well, including Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. Recent season setting actions taken during the commission meeting in March were implemented to help the mule deer in southeast Idaho recover more quickly. 

“While the winter has been difficult on wildlife, the department has been in front of the issue since January and has already pulled many of the same levers as other states,” Cheirrett said. “It’s a tough situation, but we will continue to monitor it.” 

Additional measures

Fish and Game staff in the Southeast and Upper Snake regions have also relied on additional strategies to help counteract the severity of winter on wildlife, including winter feeding. 

When weather conditions begin significantly affecting herd survival, Fish and Game has a system in place to determine the best approach. Regional citizen advisory committees keep a watchful eye on several weather conditions and factors, such as snow depths, whether there’s crust on snow that hinders an animal’s ability to forage and extended periods of sub-zero temperatures. 

If any of these situations occur, the committees convene and make recommendations to Fish and Game whether to begin emergency feeding. To date, the Southeast Region has implemented 23 feeding sites for deer and five for elk. Supplemental feed can help some deer and elk, as well as deter animals from human conflicts, such as animals getting into livestock or agricultural fields, wandering on to roadways, or congregating in or near towns and becoming a nuisance. 

Southeast Regional Communications Manager Jennifer Jackson pointed out there are other ways to “feed” wintering wildlife that Fish and Game managers rely on to help herds survive the long-term. 

“Planting sagebrush and improving natural food sources and habitat is one of the best ways we can help out deer,” Jackson said. The region continues to work with outdoor groups, landowners and volunteers to help improve habitat and put more food on the landscape.

“It’s just as important to put feed in the ground as it is on the ground,” Jackson added. 


Fish and Game also closed some Wildlife Management Areas in eastern Idaho to further protect big game herds and give animals a place to avoid disturbances. 

While it won’t affect this winter, Commissioners will have another method of protecting wintering herds in the future. 

Shed antler hunting is a popular activity across the West, and other states have set seasons to keep shed hunters away from vulnerable wintering deer and elk. Southeast and Upper Snake regional staff began hearing concerns from sportsmen and women about influxes of out-of-state shed hunters who came to Idaho because seasons were closed in their states. 

Soon after, the Idaho legislature passed a bill that gives the Fish and Game Commission the authority to declare a shed hunting season, if needed, to keep people from putting added stress on wintering wildlife.

Antler Shed

Not out of the woods yet

Early each winter, Fish and Game staff places GPS collars on hundreds of mule deer fawns and does (as well as cow and calf elk) to get a sense of how they are surviving throughout the winter. Biologists collar animals mostly in the southern and eastern parts of the state and are able to track animals throughout winter to see how many survive.

As we approach the middle of April — a critical time for wintering deer — southeast Idahoans and Fish and Game staff are finding a growing number of dead deer (mostly fawns) on private land and winter ranges.

“In some places, we’ve lost as many as 8 out of 10 collared fawns this winter,” Boudreau said. 

Unable to find food, traverse deep snow and avoid predators, young deer tend to get hit the hardest during harsh winters. Depending on weather, March and April are often when most fawns die because the young animals' fat reserves are largely depleted, and their digestive systems need time to convert to digesting fresh, green forage.

Adult mule deer are less vulnerable than fawns to winter kill, but each winter, some adults also die.

Through March, the statewide average mortality rates for GPS collared mule deer fawns was sitting at 55 percent, which is above the long-term average of about 40 percent fawn mortality. However, in southeast Idaho, mortality of collared fawns is ranging from 74% to 83% in some of the hardest-hit units.

By mid-April, the Southeast Region had roughly 182% to 237% of the long-term average snow and had several late-season storms with few warm days that help melt snow and sprout new vegetation that’s critical for deer. 

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Boudreau said. “We will continue to monitor deer and elk survival as winter turns to spring, but as it sits right now, it’s going to be a low year for fawn survival over in the eastern part of the state.”