By Evin Oneale, Regional Conservation Educator, Southwest Region.
Just one of the major challenges faced by big game managers is how to meld the biological needs of the managed species with the social desires of those who enjoy pursuing that species each hunting season. In each case, a species' biological needs must remain first and foremost. After all, without healthy herds, hunting is not an option.
Yet in some situations, different seasons can lead to the same biological end result. That's where you - the hunter - come in. Your input helps shape big game seasons in these situations. This spring's flurry of public involvement illustrates this point.
When rule changes fail to go their way, it is easy for individual sportsmen to think the department simply does not listen. These examples help illustrate that this is not the case. Thanks to everyone who participated in crafting these seasons by providing input to department personnel. Fish and Game hosted seven open houses across the region to gather season-shaping input from hunters and other interested folks. Meetings were held in Boise, Council, Emmett, McCall, Mountain Home, Nampa and Weiser. More than 250 attended one of the meetings and 450 others provided input via a random mail survey. Everyone providing input received a summary letter outlining the results of the effort and the subsequent season recommendations submitted to the Fish and Game Commission for final approval.
While meeting participants were free to address any wildlife issue, the department sought input on three specific issues; Weiser/Council-area deer management, Owyhee County deer management, and elk management in the Boise and Weiser River Zones.
Weiser/Council-area Deer Management
For biological and social reasons, a change was needed in deer hunting seasons in units 22, 31, sportsmen 32 and 32A. For the past few years, it has been painfully evident that the department's goal of 15 bucks per 100 does has not been met in these units (during the most recent aerial surveys of these units, biologists documented an average of nine bucks per 100 does). Hunter input confirmed this fact. The trick was deciding what to do to improve this buck/doe ratio.
Four options were floated and each received a measure of support. They were:
- No change to the general 27-day season;
- A two-point buck restriction;
- A 10-day "any buck" general season;
- A 16-day "any buck" general season.
From the survey and meeting results, no clear option preference emerged. The current season was favored by 20 percent of hunters; another 50 percent expressed a desire to abandon this option altogether.
Fish and Game personnel looked at some additional factors relating to peaks in deer harvest.
Three emerged: opening week, the opening day of the B tag ("any bull") elk hunt (which overlaps the deer season) and the final days of the deer season. While the opening week rush cannot be offset, the other two high-harvest points can. The final recommendation to the Fish and Game Commission was a shortened season (20 days - October 5 to October 24) with the B tag elk opener shifted to October 25, the day after the deer season closes. The Commission adopted this recommendation.
Eliminating the deer/elk season overlap will help reduce the deer harvest, and the shorter season will miss the mule deer rut, further reducing deer vulnerability to harvest.
These changes are good "first steps" to help rebuild buck numbers in these areas, although the difference will not be noticeable in the short term. However, with reduced harvest, good production and mild winter weather, buck numbers should be noticeably higher in two to three years.
One last note. Timber harvest practices in these units have left deer (and elk) escape cover in short supply, while vehicle access across the area is nearly limitless (there are enough miles of road in just the Middle Fork of the Weiser River drainage to stretch from Boise to Portland). This combination has resulted in the over-harvest of bucks (and bulls). To quote Fish and Game wildlife manager Lou Nelson, "Four-wheelers are death to deer in this open country." This problem is driving the overharvest of bucks and bulls in these units, and if not resolved will continue to dictate more restrictive hunting seasons.
Boise and Weiser River Elk Zones
The elk herds in these zones are suffering from low bull/cow ratios. Translation: too many bulls are being harvested each fall. Yet overharvest is merely a symptom of a greater problem mentioned earlier: lack of cover and too much access, leading to serious elk vulnerability.
The ratio of nine bulls per 100 cows in these units is a far cry from the goal of 18 to 22 bulls/100 cows. Further, the number of mature bulls, with its goal of 10-14 bulls/100 cows is equally dismal at 4/100. The bottom line: for the biological health of these elk herds, bull harvest must be reduced by a whopping 40 percent.
Capping the sale of B tags at a level to meet the biological goal is the easy management option. However, the department is not yet ready to take this controversial step without additional review and input by hunters.
In the interim, the department is seeking incentives that will result in the voluntary shift of hunters away from the B tag in these zones. Several options were floated at our public meetings, only one of which will meet the 40 percent reduction goal this first year. That option, reducing the B tag season to five days, has worked in some parts of the state but backfired in others where it resulted in crowding complaints and no significant reduction in harvest. The option proved unpopular with hunters and was not part of Fish and Game's final recommendation.
Based on public input, the department recommended delaying the start of the B tag elk hunt in the Weiser River zone until October 25 (after the deer season closes), and shortening the season from 15 to 10 days. The department will carefully examine a proposal to cap B tags in the Boise River zone in 2001. The Commission adopted these recommendations and took further action by closing the B tag archery season and the A tag (any weapon) spike elk seasons in both zones. These are steps in the right direction for the long-term health of these elk herds.
Owyhee County Deer Management
Three options were floated, based upon public feedback throughout the past year.
- Maintain the current two-point general season and a late-season controlled hunt.
- Scrap the status quo and switch to a five-day "any buck" general season.
- Switch exclusively to a late-season "trophy buck" controlled hunt.
Any of these options would allow for adequate buck survival, but each would provide vastly different hunting opportunities. So the question posed was a simple one: which of these seasons would you prefer?
The five-day "any buck" general season option received the least support; folks just were not excited about a short general season. Support was nearly equally split between the remaining two options. With no clear-cut "winner," Fish and Game personnel examined both options from a hunter impact standpoint. Maintaining the current season would provide much more hunter opportunity. Implementing the late season, trophy-buck hunt would force approximately 3,000 mule deer hunters to find another place to hunt. The hunter opportunity factor tipped the scales, leading to the department recommendation to maintain the current two-point general season and the late-season controlled hunt. Following review, the Fish and Game Commission adopted this recommendation.
Other changes in year 2000 big game seasons are outlined in the big game rulebook that should be available from local vendors by the first part of May. Remember that you have the entire month of May to apply for big game controlled hunts. Have a great hunting season.