Will more orange show up amongst the yellow willow leaves and blackened tree trunks of North-central Washington’s Tripod Burn next year?
Possibly, considering the attention a 9×10 buck killed there during the general rifle season’s second weekend is getting on our blog and elsewhere online, the fact that the browse in the 175,000-acre blaze will continue to be horn-o-rific for antler growth over the near future, and the potential we may have another weak or mild winter.
Possibly not, considering the apparent continuing decline in hunter participation in Okanogan County despite sexy buck numbers in recent years, the continued increase in gas prices, and claims by a couple locals that the deer herd’s been hard hit by wolves.
(OK, I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase, “sexy buck numbers,” but it fits the description in this case.)
It remains to be seen, of course, what the short- and long-term effects of Pete and Conner Fochesato’s buck will be — and it’s only one animal — but some hunters worry that their honey holes might now get overrun while others know that the fire zone between Winthrop, Conconully and the Canadian border can be a bastard to negotiate.
More and more fire-killed trees in the patchy 2006 conflagration are tipping over from rot and weather. Places one can walk freely one day are blocked by Doug firs, ponderosas and lodgepoles that fall overnight or whenever the wind blows.
Beyond crisscrossed tangles, throw in dry fall weather that keeps brush and forest debris noisy, large winter-range closures that hunters must walk, ride horses or bicycle in to access, roadless areas up high, and you have a recipe for country that not everyone is willing to take on.
Then there’s WDFW Sgt. Jim Brown’s story of the hunter who last fall got lost in the Tripod only to reemerge, covered in soot and miles from his camp, bewildered.
Recent seasons have been something of a similar puzzle for hunters and hunting reporters like myself.
Coming out of 2010′s hunts, state biologists said they counted 24 bucks for every 100 does during chopper surveys, four bucks more than the previous season, nine above management objectives, and one of the best ratios over the past decade.
That plus increasingly good forage in the Tripod led to good prospects last fall.
In an overarching big game preview in our October 2011 issue covering deer and elk on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, Northwest Sportsman mapped the burn as well as others from the last decade in northern Chelan County and western and central Okanogan County.
Despite that, participation as measured at the voluntary check station in Winthrop was down sharply. And after driving around the middle part of the county during the first weekend, Brown reported that hunter numbers looked more like they might on the second Saturday and Sunday.
Then last November’s aerial count found a mind-boggling 29 bucks for every 100 does, the best since … criminy, I don’t know, the Okanogan Lobe of the great Cordilleran Ice Sheet melted back to Penticton?
Surely, I thought, if Fitkin and Heinlen aren’t messing with mein cabeza, that figure and their forecast of an “excellent opportunity” this season would turn hunters back onto the Okanogan, and in droves.
At the Red Barn over this fall’s two weekends, the two state wildlife biologists did chat with and check “slightly” more hunters and their deer than they did in 2011 — 253 with 49 vs. 245 with 43.
One of the last of those animals, the Fochesatos’ buck, was the largest Fitkin had seen in 17 years manning the station there and on the Chewuch Road.
Brown, however, reports different observations in the field.
“Countywide, we saw less deer and less hunters,” he says.
He and a half dozen other wildlife officers in six rigs ran around the Okanogan and northern Douglas County, working 12-, 14-, even 16-hour days over the nine-day hunt.
One, Cal Treser, worked the whole season in the Methow Valley, and his report, according to Brown, was that things were “significantly down.”
“We covered it quite well for what I had,” he said. “There were a lot of empty meat poles.”
Another way to measure effort, unfortunately, is the number of citations and arrests wardens make. Brown reports that he and his officers issued around 50 this season, similar to last year, but only one third of what they might have handed out in 2002 or 2003 when Okanogan County west of the Okanogan River was seeing upwards of 12,000 riflemen who reported hunting here.
Last year, 7,600 said they hunted in GMUs 203 through 243.
According to a graph in WDFW’s 2011 Washington State Game Status and Trend Report, the herd in that area was declining in 2006, the most recent year data was available for, when it was modeled at a population of 23,000ish, down from a high of 28,000ish in 2005 and 2000.
Muleys here are most strongly affected by severity of winters, quality of forage, conversion of range to housing, and long-term fire suppression. There’s only one known wolf pack, the Lookout pair, though WDFW will look into hunter reports from elsewhere.
During his own muzzleloader hunt on state land earlier this month when it was still hot, Brown reports he saw neither anybody else in the open DNR campground he stayed at nor any hunters in the field — he did not kill a buck — though he indicated that he heard ATVs and clacking diesels.
A question I was asked at our office after my own unsuccessful campaign was whether I saw a lot of deer hanging in camps.
I had to admit I hadn’t — but then again our driving around was limited to going into camp before season started and at night, and coming out when many had left for the workweek or the season (in the case of the first weekend possibly with their deer because of warm temperatures).
Which is also to say, no, we’re not road hunters.
But despite seemingly ever-increasing fuel prices, Brown feels there’s been a shift towards that style of hunting amongst not only sportsmen with mobility issues, but also the younger generation, even those with “camo down to their chrome bumpers.”
Photos of success breed interest like words on a page or blog sometimes can’t, but the sergeant doesn’t feel that bucks like the Fochesatos’ will do much for hunter participation next fall.
“I don’t think Tripod will be overrun,” Brown says. “You been there? You get 100 yards into it and want to go back to your truck.”
That’s all the encouragement some hunters need.