“It was just slow.”
That’s the report of a deer check station staffer/local hunter coming out of Northeast Washington’s late whitetail rifle season, which wrapped up yesterday.
Annemarie Prince says 96 hunters came through WDFW’s Deer Park game check on Sunday, Nov. 18, with 16 bucks for a 16.6 percent success rate, figures well down from Nov. 19, 2017’s 124 with 43 for a 34.7 percent success rate.
“There were a couple nice deer, but nothing, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ Not many spikes, mainly three-by-threes, four-by-fours,” says Prince, the agency’s Colville-based district wildlife biologist.
She didn’t know why the numbers were down at the voluntary pull-off along U.S. 395 between Colville and Spokane, but noted that climatically it’s been a “very dry” fall.
“It was nice to be in that weather, but it was not great for hunting,” she says.
Others had more ideas. As the Nov. 10-19 season kicked off, Hunting Washington members were reporting a declining deer population in the state’s upper righthand corner, with plenty of focus on mountain lions and wolves. The open area is home to 10 known packs.
Famed salmon and steelhead angler Buzz Ramsey of Klickitat and his friend Bill Harris were among those who headed into the woods north of Spokane early last week with high hopes following the duo’s success last November, but they came out on Sunday without any fresh venison.
Hunting fairly high in an area that still had some snow from a preseason dusting, Ramsey says he didn’t really see many deer, just a nice but off-limits muley buck and a pair of spooky whitetail does.
He says that a party of longtime hunters they talked to, including an 86-year-old who’d told them he’d been hunting the area since he was 12, didn’t have any deer hanging either, but bucks were turning up at night on their cameras.
All the wolf and mountain lion tracks that Ramsey, Harris and others spotted led Ramsey to wonder if perhaps predator activity hadn’t impacted when the rut occurs, but WDFW’s Prince doesn’t believe that to be the case.
“The hunters on the landscape are a much larger group of ‘predators’ than wild predators. And if they (hunters) haven’t moved the rut, the true predators aren’t going to,” she says.
Prince, who just so happens to count herself among those two-legged predators — “I did see a buck that should have been a dead buck” — points to an ongoing state study and work by former district wildlife biologist Steve Zender that suggests nothing’s changing in terms of rut timing.
She says that he found whitetails conceived fawns between Nov. 12 and Dec. 2.
The plurality of that breeding activity, 39 percent, occurred Nov. 19-25, with 31 percent between Nov. 26-Dec. 2 and 30 percent between Nov. 12-18.
The 2017 rifle hunt ended on the 19th, the same day as the final one the Deer Park check station was open, so perhaps that and heavier snows had something to do with the higher hunter numbers and deer kill.
The joint WDFW-University of Washington Predator-Prey Project, launched in early 2017 and slated to run through 2021, should help flesh out ungulate, cougar and wolf trends and dynamics in Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties.
This year’s deer prospects weren’t stellar but weren’t awful either.
Before this season started, Prince told me that a survey here found 32 bucks per 100 does, “statistically the same” as the longterm average since 2007.
In her and assistant wildlife biologist Ben Turnock’s hunting forecast, they reported that last year’s fawn numbers — this year’s spikes — were also back up after 2016’s “new low” that followed 2015’s blue-tongue outbreak, drought conditions and very large harvest, though were still tied for second worst since at least 2001.
Back at the check station, Prince says she also heard from hunters who reported they didn’t see any deer while others saw lots of nocturnal activity on their trail cameras.
Two parties that she believes hunted the same plot of state land up a particular road came through with very different observations.
The first had harvested a pair of spikes and reported seeing “so many deer,” while the second said they “didn’t see anything” outside of the one they killed.
With those and other mixed signals, Prince says she’ll be interested to see what the final harvest data for this year shows.
Even though the 2018 rifle hunt is now officially in the books, muzzleloaders can head out in the Selkirk Unit (GMU 113) for whitetails starting tomorrow, Nov. 21, and bowhunters get their last cracks at flagtails in the Kelly Hill, Douglas, 49 Degrees North, Huckleberry and Mt. Spokane Units (GMUs 105, 108, 117, 121 and 124) beginning next Sunday, Nov. 25.
Deadline to report your 2018 hunts is Jan. 10, 2019, to be eligible for the incentive permit, or Jan. 31 to avoid the $10 late fee.