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Elk herd

New surveys indicate that most hunters are happy with existing seasons, but some groups question how the state handles its whitetail and mule deer herds.

Game managers for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are diving into simultaneous efforts to create new management plans for both whitetail and mule deer in the state.

Officials there recently completed surveys that indicated most hunters are satisfied with the hunting opportunities and management of both species. But the surveys and other communications with and from hunters revealed that not everyone is pleased.

For example, a sizable and vocal contingent of whitetail hunters in the Clearwater Region is concerned by the lack of information available on the size of the whitetail herd and the age class distribution of bucks. Northern Idaho Whitetails Forever successfully lobbied this year for a shortened hunting season in Unit 10A, one of the state’s most popular spots for whitetail deer hunters.

The season there previously ran through Dec. 1. This fall, it will end on Nov. 20. The group continues to push the department to consider shortening the season in other units so more bucks survive the rut — the deer mating period when males are more vulnerable to harvest.

Bill Samuels, a member of the group from Orofino, said he is pleased the department conducted the whitetail survey but said game managers shouldn’t base hunting seasons or a new whitetail plan simply on the results. He said the group wants the department to “manage our whitetail herd from the standpoint of what we have out there, not on an opinion poll. We are trying to get back to where we have a textbook whitetail herd where age class is very important.”

He said the department relies too much on harvest information and doesn’t have enough hard data on things like actual whitetail numbers, the buck-to-doe ratio and the number of mature versus young bucks.

Samuels also wants the department to consider habitat changes when it sets hunting seasons. For example, he said there has been a high volume of logging in Unit 10A, particularly on Potlatch Corp. property, and the department should consider that type of information.

“What do we have out there? Is it a viable, sustainable herd that can breed and keep our hunting going?” he asked. “They can’t answer that. They just say everybody is happy.”

The group was formed by hunters who say long seasons that run through the rut have reduced the number of mature bucks. The ranks of Northern Idaho Whitetails Forever have quickly grown, with new chapters in Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene forming recently. Samuels said thousands of hunters, through a Facebook poll and comments, have signaled they support the idea of shortening whitetail hunting seasons.

Daryl Meints, statewide deer and elk coordinator for Fish and Game at Boise, said the department will use the surveys and information from individuals and groups like Samuels’ to help write the plan.

“It gives us that initial snapshot, if you will, of the thoughts and feelings of both whitetail and mule deer hunters of the current management and where they would like to see things go in the future,” Meints said.

But he said the polls are not the only data points the teams writing the individual plans are looking at. They are also asking hard questions about the information biologists have on both mule deer and whitetail herds in the state. Whitetail deer are particularly difficult to survey and get hard numbers on because much of the herd tends to occupy heavily timbered areas where aerial surveys are not reliable.

“We are going to have to figure out how best to get a better handle on how many whitetail are on the landscape,” he said.

For example, Meints said the department’s hunter harvest surveys now ask hunters to report if they shot a doe or a buck and, if they shot a buck, to report how many points it had.

That can give game managers an idea of how many old versus young bucks were taken. But Meints said some hunters have rightly pointed out that young bucks can have five points on one side of their antlers and some big, mature bucks can have fewer than five points.

“Do we need to change things in how we assess buck quality in harvest?” he said. “There is a lot of difference between a yearling buck and a subadult buck with five points and a truly mature buck. How do we best analyze that?”

He said the plan writers will look at several different alternatives and lay out the positive and negative consequences for hunters.

“Part of our job when we formulate those is to lay out pros and cons. ‘Here are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this,’ and lay out all of the options. At some point in time, we take this all back to the public and say, ‘We have listened, here are the issues you have identified over time that you feel need to be addressed. What do you think? We can do this but it will come at a cost.’ That is what it is all about. Nothing is perfect. Everything comes with a cost, and it will be down to the sportsmen deciding if they are willing to pay the costs.”

There will be several points during the plan-writing process for the public to comment. Meints said hunters are also able to participate in the Idaho Fish and Game Commission’s annual hunting season-setting.

Those pushing for more data on whitetail deer herd demographics and for shorter seasons have the ear of Dan Blanco, the Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner representing the Clearwater Region. Blanco said the survey of whitetail hunters showed that most of them are satisfied, but he believes there is more to the story. For example, the survey showed that 72 percent of hunters were satisfied with the chances of harvesting a whitetail deer, and 71 percent were satisfied with their odds of getting a buck. It showed that 58 percent were happy with their chances at harvesting a mature buck and that 77 percent like being able to hunt in late November.

But Blanco said most people are apt to want more opportunity and will say they want longer seasons. He said most people who fill out surveys assume the department has lots of data on the deer herd.

“I think there is a need to balance hunter satisfaction and hunter desires to make sure we have the animals and the herd and a sustainable herd and that we can continue to offer the kind of opportunity we like to offer in Idaho,” he said.

Blanco would like the shortened season in Unit 10A to remain in place for a number of years so the department is able to draw conclusions about its effectiveness and whether it leads to more mature bucks in the population.

“What I’m looking at is 10A as kind of a laboratory where we can make some incremental changes and if we can produce the results a lot of people want to see,” he said.

However, Blanco said he is not now advocating for changes in other units.

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