Season setting time for Big Game

Deer and elk seasons might seem like a long way off, here in the middle of winter, but there are things you should do now for the upcoming seasons.  I’m not talking about tuning up the bow or sighting in the rifle (although those are always options).

 Idaho Fish and Game is starting the process of taking public input for the 2017 and 2018 big game seasons.  In 2015, Fish and Game went to a 2-year cycle for setting big game seasons.  That two year period is now up, so it’s time to look at options for the next two years.

Biologists look at a variety of things when considering what potential seasons might be.  These include the number of animals harvested in the 2015 and 2016 seasons, success rates of hunters, results from winter helicopter surveys, survival rates of radio-collared animals, and weather, including both summer and winter conditions.  These help set the range of seasons that Fish and Game might offer.

Another very important consideration is finding out what hunters want.  That’s what we will be looking for in the upcoming month.  There are several ways to have your voice heard.  Fish and Game will be holding four public meetings in February.  Meetings will be held in the following locations:

Sandpoint, Feb. 16, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, Ponderay Events Center, 401 Bonner Mall Way, Suite E
St. Maries, Feb. 18, 8:00 to 10:00 am, 18th Elks Lodge, 628 Main Ave (We will be checking bobcats at this meeting)
Coeur d’Alene, Feb. 23, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, IDFG Regional Office, 2885 W Kathleen Ave
Osburn, Feb. 25, 8:30 to 10:30 am, VFW Hall, 318 E Mullan Ave

Comments on big game seasons can also be submitted on the Fish and Game website.  For those who hunt in different areas of the state, all statewide season proposals can be viewed at https://idfg.idaho.gov/.  Seasons have not been posted at the time of writing this article but they should be posted by the weekend.

The Fish and Game department will review all public input, consider current winter conditions and make recommendations to the Idaho Fish and Game commission.  The commission will make the final decision on 2017-2018 big game seasons at their March meeting.

I’ll briefly cover what seasons Fish and Game is considering.

White-tailed Deer:  The past 3 winters have been mild and as a result deer have experienced high over-winter survival.  Increasing deer numbers are causing agricultural crop depredations in some portions of the Panhandle.  Therefore, we are proposing to increase the number of extra antlerless white-tailed deer tags (X-tags) for Unit 1, change hunt unit boundaries for the X-tags to focus harvest on and near agricultural land, and add X-tags in Units 2 and 5.  Regionally, the Panhandle white-tailed deer harvest is estimated to exceed 12,000.  We are keeping an eye on the current winter conditions.  This may affect what we recommend to the commission.

Mule Deer:  Mule deer harvest in the Panhandle is restricted to antlered deer only.  Mule deer represent a minor part of the deer harvest in the Panhandle.  Harvest varies from 600 to 800 bucks annually.  Four-point or bigger bucks made up 35% of the mule deer harvest.  We are proposing no changes to the mule deer seasons in the Panhandle.

Black Bear:  Black bear populations appear to be stable throughout the Panhandle.  Annual harvest varies from 450-800 bears, about equally split between the spring and fall seasons.  Harvest is affected by hunter access in the spring and the huckleberry crop in the fall.  We are proposing no significant changes to the bear hunting season.  The changes we are proposing align the period when the use of hounds is permitted for black bears and mountain lions in the same unit.

Mountain Lion:  Mountain lion populations in the Panhandle appear to be stable to increasing.  Annual harvest has increased from 2007 when 60 mountain lions were harvested; harvest in 2015 was 134.  Similar to black bears, we are proposing no significant changes to the mountain lion season.  The changes we are proposing align the period when the use of hounds is permitted for black bears and mountain lions in the same unit.

Wolves:  Regional wolf harvest set a new high last year when 107 were harvested during the period including the fall and winter of 2015-2016.  Wolf populations appear to be slightly declining.  We are taking public input on two alternatives, the first being no change to the current seasons.  The second alternative would move the opening date for wolf hunting on public land from August 30 to August 1.

Elk:  We are recommending few changes for all the other big game species in the Panhandle but things are different with elk.  We are proposing significant changes that would allow either-sex harvest during the general hunting season, something that was last offered in 2011. 

Elk populations in some parts of the Panhandle have been increasing, especially on private lands associated with agricultural fields.  There are also areas within the Panhandle where elk populations are low and should be allowed to continue to recover.

Survival rates of radio-collared elk have been high.  Cow survival rates have been 95% the last 2 years.  Six-month to one-year old calves also have high survival rates, averaging 82%.  Winter helicopter flights have shown high calf:cow ratios, also indicating high calf survival.  This is the primary reason we feel we can offer either-sex harvest during the general seasons in 2017 and 2018.

The either-sex season would not be offered throughout the entire Panhandle elk zone as was done in the past.  IDFG has a legal obligation to address depredation issues.  Either-sex hunting seasons on and near private land will help address depredations while offering hunting opportunity for the general public.  Maintaining the antlered-only seasons in other portions of the Panhandle will allow elk herds in those areas the opportunity to continue to recover and grow. 

It’s exciting to be able to consider either-sex elk hunting in the Panhandle again.  The elk season alternatives that will be presented at the public meetings are not simple.  It’s challenging to try to develop seasons that reduce elk in some parts of the Panhandle and protect other areas with seasons that will allow elk herds to grow.  Consider attending one of the public meetings or look on line for statewide big game seasons.  And now that I think about it, maybe it is time to go put a few rounds through that rifle after all.