Washington deer hunters had one of their worst seasons last fall, harvesting the fewest animals in more than 20 years.
Part of that was probably due to nearly a new low number of sportsmen who hit the field in pursuit of blacktails, muleys and whitetails, and it could also be a lingering hangover from 2015’s relatively high harvest as well as recent drought and harsher winters.
WDFW’s recently released 2017 Game Harvest Report shows that Evergreen State hunters killed just 24,360 deer during the general season, 26,537 when special permits are included.
Both are the lowest harvests since 1997, as far back as state agency’s online records go.
Next closest low marks are 2011’s general season harvest of 26,638 deer and 29,154 when special permits are included.
High marks are 2004’s 39,359 and 44,544, respectively.
Riflemen, who make up the bulk of the state’s hunters, killed 17,113 bucks during September, October and November 2017’s various general seasons.
That’s also a new cellar dweller, and is nearly 2,000 antlered animals fewer than the next closest fall, 2011, when 19,007 tags were notched.
It’s also nearly 13,000 less than the high mark, 30,058 in 2004.
As for overall hunter numbers, those nearly set a new low; 2017’s 106,977 was only a couple hundred more pumpkins than 2006’s 106,751.
It’s actually more remarkable that 2006’s turnout was so low — I wonder if it might actually have been due to bad data entry — as the number of hunters has been declining for decades in Washington and across most of the country as Baby Boomers age out of the sport.
Looking at five-year averages, WDFW’s stats show a loss of over 30,000 deer chasers since the late 1990s — and nearly 50,000 since 152,840 headed for the woods in 1999.
Other factors in play include more and more private timber companies charging entry fees to access their sprawling acreages, as well as increasing numbers of wolves.
So far the latter hasn’t been shown to be impacting deer populations, according to a WDFW assessment, but perhaps the perception of packs as well as reality that the predators are moving deer around to different areas are affecting hunters.
As for why 2017 was so poor, WDFW game manager Jerry Nelson said it was possible that 2015’s high general season and special permit harvest of 37,963 deer played a role. That was the most since 2005.
A recent presentation he made to the Fish and Wildlife Commission shows a decline of 3,000 deer killed in Northeast Washington’s whitetail-rich District 1 between 2015, the year the four-point minimum came off two key units, and 2017.
“Some speculate about the drought of 2015 being followed by the above average winters of 2015-16 and 2016-17 as being a factor in some locations,” Nelson added.
The latter winter was particularly strong across the southern tier of Eastern Washington.
Bluetongue also hit far Eastern Washington whitetails in 2015, adenovirus muleys in South-central Washington last year.
Nelson said that fewer special permits were issued last year, though not enough to affect the overall harvest.
Still, he didn’t have any good ideas why so relatively few general season hunters went out.
Poking around the numbers myself, I see that sharp drops in hunter numbers can occur two years after really good seasons.
For instance, following 2004’s huge kill, 2006 saw nearly 40,000 fewer hunters head out, if that year’s statistic is to be trusted.
Following 2015’s, 10,000 fewer went out in 2017.
If there are any positives to be had in the data, it’s that general season rifle success percentages have actually been relatively strong in recent years.
The three best deer seasons since 1997 were 2015 (30.6 percent), 2016 (28.8) and 2014 (28.2).
And five of the top six have occurred since 2012, with only 2004’s standout 27.7 in the mix.
On the flip side, 2017’s 22.5 percent was fifth lowest since 1997, with 1998’s 18.7 percent the worst of all, followed by 1999’s and 1997’s 21.2 and 21.6 percents, respectively.
Those three bad years in the late 1990s followed hard on the heels of a very bad winter and new three-point minimums for mule deer.
But now with 2018’s seasons less than five months away, what do Washington deer hunters have to look forward to?
“On the plus side, we have had a mild winter this year, so deer over-winter survival should be good,” Nelson noted.
A WDFW press release out after the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved hunting seasons for this and the next two years notes that “Hunters will be allowed to take antlerless white-tailed deer in game management units 101-121 in northeast Washington. Special permits will be available to seniors and hunters using modern firearms, while other hunters can take antlerless deer during general hunting seasons.”
Commissioners also retained the 11-day general season mule deer hunt in Eastern Washington.
ELK HARVEST, HUNTER NUMBERS ALSO LOW
WDFW stats also show that 2017 elk season was the second worst in terms of harvest since 1997, and it also saw a new low for hunter numbers afield.
As with deer, the two stats point to a correlation — fewer hunters afield are naturally going to kill fewer animals, but permit levels and weather conditions also play a role. The low snow year of 2014-15 may have subsequently impacted elk productivity, and last year saw over antlerless permit levels for the Yakima and Coluckum hunters reduced by more than 2,500. Prime portions of the Yakima Herd range were also under area closures in September due to forest fires.
During last year’s general seasons, 54,638 wapiti chasers killed 3,011 bulls and 1,224 antlerless elk, for a total of 4,235. Add in special permits, and the 2017 harvest was 5,465 animals.
Except for the number of hunters, all those figures are second only to 1997, when 59,015 hunters bagged 2,586 bulls and 1,127 antlerless elk during the regular season for a total of 3,713 animals. Including special permits, that year’s take was 4,919.
High marks over those years include 2000’s 86,205 hunters, 4,519 and 2,260 general season bulls and antlerless elk, and 2012’s regular and permit harvest of 9,162.