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Washington 2019 Rifle Deer Season Prospects

After 2017’s nadir, harvest rose last year, and there are some good signs out there for this fall.

ALSO: Quick looks at Evergreen State elk, pheasant and chukar forecasts

By Andy Walgamott

With Washington’s general rifle buck season looming large in hunters’ minds, it’s time to check in with Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists for what they are forecasting for districts spread across the state.

In some, the news is fair, as deer continue to bounce back from drought, harsh winters and/or disease outbreaks, as witnessed by rising harvest last season. But it’s not so good in others, especially where snowy, cold February and March weather impacted already weakened herds.

A DEER HUNTER GLASSES FOR BUCKS IN A ROADLESS AREA OF NORTHEAST WASHINGTON’S COLVILLE NATIONAL FOREST. (CHASE GUNNELL)

Regardless, fall springs loose eternal hope inside the hearts of Evergreen State deer hunters. Portents (and predators!) aside, it’s likely that somewhere around 77,000 of us modern firearms toters will head afield during Mother Nature’s best season to be outdoors.

And if we build on last year’s harvest of 18,071 bucks – which was up nearly 1,000 antlered whitetails, blacktails and muleys over 2017’s 20-plus-year-low harvest – so much the better.

Here’s a look at how the 2019 hunt, which begins Saturday, Oct. 12, is shaping up in Washington’s most important deer districts.

NORTHEAST

The big news in Washington’s deer basket might be the lockdown on general season antlerless harvest opportunities this fall as managers aim to protect the “reproductive element” of the whitetail herd, but bucks represent the bulk of the take here, and things aren’t looking so bad for this season, thanks to mild weather.

THOUGH THERE WON’T BE ANY INSEASON ANTLERLESS OPPORTUNITY FOR YOUTHS, NORTHEAST WASHINGTON IS STILL A GOOD BET FOR RIFLE HUNTERS YOUNG AND OLD ALIKE. LAST YEAR IT ACCOUNTED FOR ONE OUT OF EVERY FIVE GENERAL RIFLE BUCKS IN THE ENTIRE STATE. AUBRIANNE HOMES, THEN 14, HARVESTED HER FIRST DEER IN THE SELKIRK UNIT IN 2014 WITH A .270 SAVAGE. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

“Deer seem to have fared well this past winter and through the summer,” reports District 1 wildlife biologist Annemarie Prince in Colville. “I’ve also seen some really nice bucks while doing surveys.”

Preseason surveys show buck-to-doe ratios through Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties climbed from 25:100 in 2017 to around 32:100 or so last year, and they’re at that same level this season, a good sign. Fawn-to-doe counts have also been stable.

Generally speaking, more northerly units have been kicking out about the same numbers of antlered deer year over year for the past half-decade.

Huckleberry, one of the top units across the entire state, saw its buck take stabilize last season after declining from 2015 and that year’s “retirement” of the four-point minimum. It yielded more than a third of the district’s rifle harvest, and its 31 percent success rate and 15 days per kill were second only to Douglas, just to the north, at 33 percent and 14.

MICHELLE WHITNEY BEAMS NEXT TO HER MULE DEER BUCK, TAKEN IN NORTHEAST WASHINGTON IN OCTOBER AND PHOTOGRAPHED AT THE STATE GAME CHECK. ACCORDING TO BIOLOGIST ANNEMARIE PRINCE, IT WAS WHITNEY’S FIRST BUCK AND SHE TOOK IT IN HER 18TH YEAR AFIELD, HIGHLIGHTING THE VALUE OF NEVER GIVING UP! (WDFW)

Both those units rate highest in an analysis that measures size against harvest, hunter density and success rates, but Kelly Hill, in “the wedge” near the Canadian border, isn’t too far behind either. It also features the most public land of the trio, though good amounts of state and federal ground are in the other two as well.

Prince’s 2019 hunting prospects also list tens of thousands of acres of Feel Free To Hunt lands in the Selkirk, 49 Degrees North and Huckleberry Units.   

WDFW asks hunters to stop at the Clayton and Chewelah game checks.

IMPORTANT 2019 DEER DATES

General bow: Sept. 1-15, 22, 27, depending on species, unit
High Buck: Sept. 15-25
General muzzleloader: Sept. 28-Oct. 6
General rifle: Oct. 12-22, 25, 31, depending on species, unit
General late rifle blacktail: Nov. 14-17
General late rifle whitetail: Nov. 9-19
General late bow, muzzleloader: Various in late November
Deadline to report hunt results: Jan. 31, 2020

EASTERN BASIN

Passing stats from Gardner Minshew weren’t the only thing rising across the loess, basalt and aglands of the eastern Columbia Basin in 2018. So too was the rifle deer harvest as it bounced back from a multi-year decline, and even if the Cougs’ QB has moved on to the Jags, the trend should generally continue as the herds recover from past years’ issues.

The strongest surge was enjoyed by Steptoe Unit hunters, as the southern Palouse produced increased numbers of both mule deer and whitetail bucks and success rates rose from 25 to 35 percent, all in comparison to 2017. That year was probably the nadir after drought, a big blue tongue outbreak and a rough winter reduced deer numbers.

TIM KLINK HARVESTED THIS NICE WHITMAN COUNTY BUCK IN A PUBLIC HUNTING AREA ON OCTOBER 2016’S OPENER. THE PALOUSE WAS ONE OF THE BRIGHTER SPOTS FOR WASHINGTON GENERAL RIFLE HUNTERS LAST YEAR AS MULE DEER AND WHITETAIL HARVESTS BOTH ROSE. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

District 2 wildlife bio Michael Atamian reports muley populations are now stable, while whitetails are slowly recovering.

Buck ratios have been trending upwards since 2017 for the big-eared bounders that favor the scablands and Snake Breaks, while ratios are steady for those inhabitants of eyebrows and other wheatland habitat.

If there’s not-so-good news, it’s that the Mt. Spokane Unit’s general harvest continues to slide, from just over 2,100 in 2014 to 1,232 last year. Atamian says it’s partly a reflection of an actual decline in the area’s whitetails coming out of 2015, but also possibly landowner and hunter perceptions that there are fewer deer because of that. He says the population is actually “decent,” though not 2014 heyday-sized yet.

“I was expecting 2018 to be in line with 2017, but was surprised it was a couple hundred bucks less,” he says.

Mt. Spokane will be the only unit in Northeast Washington open for youths, seniors and disabled hunters to take any whitetail on an over-the-counter tag during select parts of October and November.

Bottom line is that whether you hunt the hobby farms around the Lilac City or the massive farms of the Palouse, or somewhere in between this season, you should “expect to have to put in more time to be successful,” Atamian advises.

That said, the average days per kill in recent years – 13 to nearly 14.5 (compared to 10s and 11s from 2013 through 2015) – would make hunters elsewhere in the state green with envy. It’s also a function of the overwhelming amount of private land here. Get permission and you’ve got pretty darn good odds, 30 percent or better most years.

But that isn’t to say the upper basin is one giant no-trespassing patch, as there are large areas of public land, especially in the Davenport-Odessa scablands, and Sprague and Revere areas.

THIS KID’S GONNA BE A SCOUT SNIPER AT THIS PACE! JAMES GARRETT “PRACTICED SHOOTING A LOT OUT TO 350 YARDS AND HE NEVER MISSED THAT PLATE,” SO WHEN THIS LEGAL MULEY POPPED IN WASHINGTON’S WESTERN PALOUSE AT 340 YARDS FOR THE 9-YEAR-OLD, HE DROPPED IT IN ITS TRACKS! (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

Also of note, Spokane County’s nearly 3-square-mile Mica Peak Conservation Area will be open for hunting by reservation from Oct. 12-Dec. 15, part of a bid to reduce deer as well as turkey numbers here.

“That is really good whitetail habitat,” Atamian told Spokane Spokesman-Review outdoor reporter Eli Francovich. “It produces a lot of whitetail.”

Permit hunters – especially those after does – should also find receptive property owners through WDFW’s Private Lands Access Program.

BLUE MOUNTAINS

District 3, the state’s southeast corner foothills, rugged canyons and Blue Mountains, saw a decent bounce in harvest last season, with modern firearm hunters taking 200 more bucks than in 2017, though still 600 fewer than 2013. The hope was that this fall it would climb by another 100 bucks to around 1,950 or so tags filled, but that looks less likely after this past winter.

“Things were looking good till January, February, March,” says Mark Vekasy, assistant district wildlife biologist. “We counted mule deer out in the agricultural areas and had pretty good counts, really good buck ratios.”

Prolonged cold, snowy conditions hit the region – “not your average winter.” Vekasy says ranchers were calling in dead deer and it appears that does suffered “high mortality” and were subject to “really rare” coyote predation. Postmortems found them to be in “poor condition,” with “no fat, no bone marrow,” he says.

PREDATORS LIKE WOLVES, COUGARS AND BEARS DRAW A LOT OF CONCERN FROM SPORTSMEN, BUT BIOLOGISTS SAY THE MOST IMPORTANT DRIVERS OF DEER POPULATIONS ARE HABITAT AND WEATHER CONDITIONS. PAST YEARS’ DROUGHTS AND HARSH WINTERS ARE FACTORS IN SOME HERDS’ NUMBERS. (CHAD ZOLLER)

The assumption is that bucks also succumbed, so Vekasy is forecasting a harvest similar to 2018’s 1,857 bucks or 2017’s 1,659. Those two falls featured success percentages of 29 and 25 percent, twice as good as some of the state’s most vaunted hunting grounds, but also representative of the large amount of controlled-access ground here.

“Anecdotal road-count ratios are OK, but it doesn’t seem like a lot of mature bucks are out there,” Vekasy says. “I think mule deer numbers are still going to be OK out in the ag lands, which are all private, as long as you have access.”

There are a fair number of farm and ranch properties enrolled in WDFW’s various hunting access programs, so it wouldn’t hurt to peruse privatelands.wdfw.wa.gov for what’s available in Asotin, Columbia, Garfield and Walla Walla Counties.

Note that PacifiCorp’s Marengo Wind Farm is unavailable for hunting through Dec. 20, but small sections of two other green energy sites are with a permit from The General Store in Dayton.

As for public lands, large state wildlife area parcels wrap around the fringes of the eastern half of the Blues (note that the 4-O is draw-only), while higher up is the Umatilla National Forest – not that Vekasy is recommending it.

“The best advice is not to go into the Wenaha and Tucannon,” he says bluntly. “The habitat should be pretty good in there (from past years’ Grizzly and School Fires). We’re way into habitat recovery in the Tucannon. There’s tons of shrubbery, tons of browse. I have heartburn over the Tucannon and am hoping to see improvement in the Wenaha.”

He acknowledges that predation “is certainly part of” why both units aren’t producing like they could, but notes that cougar harvest has been increasing and local wolf packs haven’t been too productive in terms of successful litters.

“In (GMU) 175 (Lick Creek), things have been going down for a long time,” Vekasy adds.

Those three mountainous units together yielded just 71 bucks for riflemen, with success percentages ranging from 5 to 12 percent.

By comparison, the large Prescott unit produced the most last year, 442, or just over a quarter of all the antlered deer killed in the entire district. Mayview and Peola featured the highest success percentages, 40 and 39 percent.

TWELVE-YEAR-OLD JACK BENSON HAD A GREAT 2018, BAGGING A PERMIT BULL AND THEN THIS WALLA WALLA MULE DEER. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

“It’s going to be time in the field,” Vekasy says. “Most guys are only hunting two or three days.”

On average it took 14 hunter days per buck killed in his district in 2018, though as few as seven in Marengo, nine in Peola and 10 in Couse, but as many as 69 in Tucannon and 66 in Wenaha.

If you make a weeklong trip, consider including your shotgun. Vekasy reports “really good” quail numbers, particularly in the foothills from Walla Walla towards Dayton.

EASTSIDE CHUKAR, PHEASANT FORECASTS 

WDFW biologists forecasted good spring chukar chick survival and summer forage on Whitman County’s Snake River Breaks, where last year’s harvest doubled versus 2017, and hunter effort also rose.

Hunters in Chelan and Douglas Counties also had a good year, taking 25 percent more birds than the five-year average. With good growing conditions here and to the north in the Okanogan, it could be a good season in North-central Washington.

INTRODUCED TO THE NORTHWEST NEARLY 150 YEARS AGO, PHEASANT REMAIN A CHALLENGE FOR UPLAND BIRD HUNTERS. WHILE NOWHERE AS NUMEROUS AS THEY ONCE WERE DUE TO HABITAT LOSS, WILD RINGNECKS CAN STILL BE FOUND ACROSS EASTERN PORTIONS OF OREGON AND WASHINGTON, WITH BIRDS ALSO RELEASED ON STATE WILDLIFE AREAS AND OTHER SITES THERE AND WEST OF THE CASCADES. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

And Kittitas and Yakima Counties have also seen increasing harvests, with that trend expected to continue in 2019. In addition to their usual haunts on the Colockum and Yakima Training Center, biologists suggest looking to the western and northern edges of their range here.

Last year saw a nice bump for Palouse pheasant hunters even as wingshooter numbers remained steady. Between that region, the Blue Mountain foothills and the thick habitat of the pheasant heartland that is Grant County, state biologists can be said to be optimistic about bird and young-of-year numbers. There are also around 30 sites across the Eastside where pheasants will be released. –AW

HUNTERS DISCUSS THE DAY AROUND A CAMPFIRE IN THE OKANOGAN. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

OKANOGAN

Where other hunting districts saw improvement last year, harvest again dropped in Okanogan County, where just 13 percent of riflemen tagged out, taking 1,145 bucks, the fewest since at least 2013 and just 44 percent of 2015’s tremendous kill.

Don’t look for the latter season to rear its head again either.

“My guess is the season will be similar to last year,” says WDFW’s Scott Fitkin.

He reports that fawn recruitment was below average coming out of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 winters, meaning fewer 2½- and 3½-year-old bucks running around this year. But with a “respectable” (if not as gaudy as mid-decade numbers) 19:100 buck:doe ratio following last season and more than a third of those being three-plus-pointers, “older age class buck availability looks decent.”

HUNTERS SKIN OUT AN OKANOGAN MULE DEER. SINCE 2015’S BIG HARVEST, THIS FAMED AREA HAS BEEN LESS PRODUCTIVE, BUT HABITAT AND FORAGE CONDITIONS ARE PRIMED TO HELP THE HERD RECOVER. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Last year, the Okanogan East unit was the district’s most productive with 329, just a slight dip from 2017 though still well below three straight 500-plus-animal years in the mid-2010s. Still, it’s a pretty good mix of range, state and national forest lands.

On the west side of the Okanogan River, the Wannacut, Chiliwist, and Pogue Units had the district’s highest success rates, 22, 18 and 15 percent, and they do have good amounts of public lands, especially the further west one goes.

A fair amount of the county has been hit by wildfires, especially above the lower Methow and Okanogan Valleys, and that does bode well for muleys and whitetails in the future.

“Those areas that burned a few to several years ago should be producing good summer forage, so does in those areas may be a little more productive, which may translate into a few more bucks in those areas,” Fitkin reports.

He notes that radio-collar work for a big predator-prey study has found the deer have a strong fidelity to their traditional summer and winter ranges.

Across the district, the average days per kill has more than doubled from the low 16.3 of the 2015 season to 37 last year. Wannacut had the lowest at 17 days per kill, followed by Chiliwist at 24 and Pogue at 26, while Pearrygin and Chewuch had the worst at two months’ worth of hunting per buck.

“Good news is the winter range recovery appears to now be progressing nicely and summer range this year was moister than it’s been in a while,” Fitkin adds. “So I’m guardedly optimistic for some improvement in fawn productivity and recruitment that should translate into a growing population and improved opportunity moving forward.”

That good condition on the high summer range may see bucks linger longer there before heading to lower ground, potential tough news for upper Methow Valley hunters targeting early migrators. They saw some pretty low success rates in 2018, just 8 percent in both the Chewuch and Pearrygin Units, though 212 bucks were pulled out of the pair.

THE WEATHER WAS WARM AND THE MOON BRIGHT AT NIGHT IN EASTERN WASHINGTON LAST OCTOBER, BUT CHAD WHITE WAS STILL ABLE TO NOTCH HIS TAG. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

CHELAN

The news is somewhat brighter to the south, where the postseason ratio was 23 bucks per 100 does, up from 18:100 the year before. Still, acting district biologist Devon Comstock notes the long, lingering winter in his prospects, as well a tough one in 2016-17.

“Hunters should consider the Chelan population to be in a rebuilding phase for the next few years,” he advises.

There will be plenty of browse to help fatten the herd too as burn scars and bowls high in the Cascades recover from past wildfires and produce good browse. This summer saw little fire activity and cooler and moister conditions, generally speaking. Again, it’s possible that that could keep these migratory deer tucked back up in the Alpine, Chiwawa, Clark and Slide Ridge Units, where they’re relatively difficult to ferret out, given the abundance of escape cover. Success rates in the quartet were just 3 to 7 percent last fall.

As a whole, hunters typically have better luck in the Entiat, Swakane and Mission Units, which represent winter range but also shouldn’t be discounted as bereft of bucks in fall either, if last year’s harvest of 92, 108 and 97 by riflemen is any indication.

“Harvest of older age-class deer should be flatter in 2019, given previous success rates and increased winter mortality,” Comstock forecasts.

WESTERN BASIN

If you’ve got access to aglands in the western Columbia Basin, you might be interested to see last fall’s postseason buck escapement figures. Those were all at or above 20:100, with the highest – 27 and 26 – observed in Douglas and Adams Counties. Management objective for the region is just 15 to 19.

While we need to be real about why that is – the land is mostly private, with controlled access – it is good news for those with permission or who hunt the scattered patches of public ground.

No, you’re probably not going to bump into El Gigante due to the open nature of this landscape (yes, George Cook did bag his Benge 9×12 not so long ago), but the good news is you will still have some life expectancy left should you connect. At just nine days needed per kill last fall, the Ritzville Unit was among the lowest in the state; the success rate of 35 percent was among the highest.

As for this year, biologist Sean Dougherty is forecasting an “average” season.

“Winter of 2018 was relatively mild overall, but late-winter (February through March) did increase in severity. There were numerous reports of winter-killed deer, but hunters can still expect to see average numbers of deer throughout the hunting season,” he reports.

Between Adams and Grant Counties, WDFW says nearly 175,000 acres of private land are enrolled in access programs this season, mostly hunting by written permission.

To the northwest, 95,000 acres have been similarly signed up in Douglas County, which has the added benefit of large, contiguous blocks of state and federal land.

One of the newest sections, the 31-square-mile Big Bend Wildlife Area, has been productive and helped lead to a harvest of 101 bucks in its overarching unit last fall. Nineteen percent of hunters were successful and needed 18 days per kill.

DAYN OSBORN, 9, HAD A GREAT RIFLE OPENER, TAKING THIS THREE-POINTER IN NORTH-CENTRAL WASHINGTON’S DOUGLAS COUNTY WITH A 60-YARD SHOT OUT OF HIS REMINGTON 700 IN .243. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

Saint Andrews, Badger and Moses Coulee didn’t produce quite as many bucks (91, 74 and 74), but did see higher success rates (29, 25 and 25 percent) and fewer days to notch a tag (12, 12 and 14). Of the trio, Moses might command more attention, as it has two large BLM blocks.

“Douglas County is a consistent producer of mule deer opportunity, and conditions should be similar in 2019,” forecasts Comstock, the wildlife bio for the county.

SOUTH-CENTRAL

Yakima and Kittitas Counties share the pitiful distinction of boasting deer success percentages that are essentially the same as the notoriously low ones elk hunters see – in the single digits. Last year two open units even produced goose eggs for rifle buck hunters, Bumping and Rimrock.

The “best” units – the largely public Naneum, Manastash and Teanaway – required 53, 64 and 77 hunter days per kill in 2018. Needless to say, don’t expect it to get better in 2019.

“Surveys found no increase, so District 8 will likely be around 5 to 6 percent success again,” biologist Jeff Bernatowicz grimly forecasts.

EVERGREEN STATE RIFLE ELK PROSPECTS

If you’re hunting wapiti in Eastern Washington on a general season rifle tag, this may be a tougher year to bag one.

Elk in the South Cascades and Blue Mountains are all down due to past years’ drought, harsh winters and consequent reduced productivity. In the case of the Yakima Herd, a large 2015 cow harvest (nearly 2,000) removed many animals.

ELK HUNTING IS PERPETUALLY LONG ODDS IN WASHINGTON, BUT CHAD SMITH GOT IT DONE LAST YEAR ON THE OPENING DAY OF WESTERN WASHINGTON’S RIFLE SEASON. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

Both Yakima and Colockum elk are below objective and are down somewhat over 2018 numbers. Biologist Jeff Bernatowicz says that will amount to roughly five dozen fewer spikes for the former herd (“over that large of an area [it] won’t be noticeable,” but more like 70 for the smaller, latter herd. “Hunters are fairly concentrated, so might notice a lower harvest,” he says.

In the Blues, bios Paul Wik and Mark Vekasy are forecasting “another below average year for yearling bull harvest.” Coming years will likely see reductions in branched-antler tags due to poor recruitment.

In the South Cascades, the St. Helens herd has stabilized, albeit it at a lower level than objective or historical numbers, according to biologist Eric Holman. He’s expecting a “generally less productive elk hunting season,” but districtwide success rates were still twice as high last year as the aforementioned Eastside ones, with the winter-sheltered Ryderwood and Willapa Hills Units among the best.

Further west, March aerial surveys of the North River, Minot Peak, Fall River and Lincoln Units found “exceptionally robust” bull:cow and cow:calf ratios (23:100 for the former), “indicating a highly productive herd with great harvest opportunities,” per biologist Anthony Novack. Just don’t expect to kill a trophy here.

And on the Olympic Peninsula, the most productive unit, Clearwater, bounced back in 2018 after a two-year decline. AW

COLUMBIA GORGE

Just to the south, District 9 saw an uptick in its overall harvest last year, from 1,113 in 2017 to 1,208, but that might be attributed almost solely to 100 more bucks taken in the Washougal Unit (360 versus 257) than anything else.

“Those Westside game management units were not nearly as affected by the severe winter of 2016-17, so likely have more robust deer populations at the moment,” reports biologist Stefanie Bergh.

As it recovers from a one-year dip in form a couple seasons back, Washougal might be worth looking into, if you’re not already familiar with it. It actually features quite a bit of actively logged state timberlands that back up to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, as well as three Weyerhaeuser fee blocks. Its 23 percent success rate and 23 days per kill were among the better marks in the district.

As for the best units by those measures, those were Battle Ground and its blacktails yielding a 28 percent success rate and 16 days per kill, and East Klickitat and its muleys at 26 and 15. They served up 211 and 202 bucks, respectively. However, both units are almost entirely private. The former is firearms restricted and requires shotguns to be used during rifle season, while in the latter, though it doubled in size this year to over 10,000 acres, the Simcoe Wildlife Area east of Goldendale is still being managed as permit only for deer.

Hunting is typically fairly consistent year to year in this long, narrow district pinioned by windmills and powerlines, but it still has yet to build back to the marks seen in the mid-2010s, general rifle harvests of 1,500 to nearly 1,750 bucks. That may require a few more years following a harsh winter and an adenovirus hemorrhagic disease outbreak the following summer, both of which impacted mule deer and fawns in three key eastern units.

“In our Klickitat GMUs we continued to see a drop in harvest in 2018, which is likely still fallout from the 2016-17 winter and AHD,” says Bergh. “Our postseason surveys of East Klickitat and Grayback in December showed a continued decline in the mule deer population there.”

If there’s good news, it’s that this past late winter’s “crazy snowfall” doesn’t appear to have knocked down fawn numbers.

“We did not receive reports of adult or fawn mortality and our annual spring survey showed a slightly above average fawn-to-adult ratio, indicating that winter fawn survival was good despite the deep snow,” Bergh reports.

Overall, the district is likely to produce another 1,200-plus-buck harvest – and probably more next year, as long as Mother Nature helps.

EARL FOYTACK’S GRANDDAUGHTER WAS A HUNTING AND FISHING FIEND IN 2018! NOT ONLY DID EMILY CATCH ALASKA SALMON DURING A DOWN YEAR, BUT TOOK HER FIRST BUCK, A THREE-POINT BLACKTAILS FROM SOUTHWEST WASHINGTON’S STELLA UNIT. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

SOUTHERN CASCADES

Harvest last year in the much-logged foothills and mountains on either side of I-5 between Chehalis and Vancouver bounced back, and the local biologist believes that will continue.

“I expect a continuation of the upward trend. The winter of 2018-19 was also mild and the summer of 2019 has been cool, wet and productive,” reports Eric Holman. “Deer hunting should be good in Western Washington during the fall of 2019.”

His district is the most productive west of the Cascade Crest, at least in terms of harvest, accounting for nearly 28 percent of all the blacktail bucks killed by general season riflemen in 2018, some 1,873 animals. Yes, that’s down from the 2016 campaign’s “very good” take of 2,206, but also up nearly 200 from 2017’s drop-off.

“The winter of 2016-17 was very severe, with unusually cold and wet weather for much of the winter,” Holman states. “This likely impacted the deer population, especially fawns that would have been yearlings for the fall of 2017 hunt. The winter of 2017-18 was mild and therefore allowed the bounce back.”

ASHLEY MASTERS MADE A PERFECT 160-YARD SHOT ON THIS COWEEMAN UNIT BLACKTAIL. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

Where many of the Eastside’s top units are mostly farms and ranches, District 10’s are dominated by private timber corporations. Weyerhaueser charges access fees, whether you come in by vehicle or foot, but Sierra Pacific allows walk-in hunting for free. Last year the Coweeman, Ryderwood and Winston Units saw the largest kills, 406, 327 and 275, respectively, along with 31, 25 and 23 percent hunter success rates. A backup plan might be the Lincoln Unit, which has three large blocks of state timberlands, saw 202 bucks harvested for a 26 percent success rate, and required 22 days to tag out, among the lowest in the district. Coweeman was lowest at 19.

Similar to the core of the Blues, upper Cowlitz Valley units produce low numbers of deer, lower success percentages and many days per buck – 88 in South Rainier. 

Holman also echoes fellow biologist Vekasy’s stick-to-it advice.

“I’ll just encourage blacktail hunters to get out there and put in the effort hunting these challenging, secretive deer,” he says. “Always keep in mind that the deer are there; you’re unlikely to ever see very many of them, but that persistence, patience and effort can often result in a successful blacktail hunt.”

BLACKTAILS A TOUGH HUNT FOR BIOLOGISTS TOO

In 2017 Evergreen State wildlife biologists began a five-year study on blacktail bucks to determine their “survival, causes of mortality, and vulnerability to harvest.” But it hasn’t always been very successful because, well, it turns out there’s a reason the species is known as the ghost of the forest.

“Considering the difficulty we had finding deer, I’m always surprised that our hunters do as well as they do in Western Washington,” says bio Michelle Tirhi, who oversees Thurston and Pierce Counties as well as Lewis County’s Skookumchuck Unit. “But then, we are attempting capture in spring and summer, which is harder than fall.”

WASHINGTON STATE WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST ANTHONY NOVACK LIFTS THE HEAD OF A SPIKE CAPTURED IN THE FALL RIVER UNIT THIS PAST JULY AS PART OF A BLACKTAIL BUCK MORTALITY STUDY. (WDFW)

She says her crews didn’t collar any bucks during the 2018-19 field season during day and night operations.

“We were targeting DNR’s Elbe Hills and Tahoma State Forests and simply seldom saw any deer, in particular bucks, so no chance to dart and collar. Those we saw at night were often does or too far for a shot. We had more luck in DNR’S Crawford Block near Skookumchuck Wildlife Area, but missed a few good shots,” she adds.

To Tirhi’s south, Eric Holman has had better success spotting deer, but laments the lack of funding that’s limiting crews’ ability to capture them.

“Unfortunately, our financial challenges just haven’t allowed for enough funding to support large-scale captures, i.e., helicopter net gunning,” he says. “We’ve captured what we can from the ground using darts and nets but this is a hard way to get many deer, and unfortunately our sample sizes remain very small to draw meaningful conclusions from. I’m hopeful that our situation will improve and we’ll be able to go ‘all in’ on this project and learn more about blacktail bucks and the impacts of our hunting seasons.”

The pages of WDFW’s biweekly Wildlife Program report occasionally have details on the study, including word of a spike captured in Holman’s district in 2018 and killed by a cougar just a mile away this past summer. Another detailed how a net gun suspended over bait led to a successful capture.

The buck study follows on another that looked into habitat use and survival of does and fawns in commercial timberlands. Results are expected soon on that one. A third that looked at forest management with an eye towards its effect on forage quality found that spraying herbicides on clearcuts “reduced the amount and quality of forage available to deer” for three years, but that “overall forage was still more abundant in these early seral stands than those 14 or more years old.”

If you shoot a blacktail with a collar – they are fair game – you’re asked to call the phone number on it, or your local WDFW office, and turn in the device, which can contain “valuable data, is expensive, and can be used again,” according to Holman. AW

BALANCE OF THE STATE

As for the rest of Western Washington, three districts stand above the reprod for deer: 15, on the east side of the Olympics including Kitsap County; 17, the South Coast; and 11, the western and northern foothills of Mt. Rainier. They produced 1,217, 1,102 and 854 bucks last year.

In District 15, the Mason Unit was most productive in 2018, yielding 289 blacktails for a 29 percent success rate, but access is poor unless you have a Green Diamond permit. Of the two public-land units, Olympic put out nearly twice as many bucks as Skokomish, 247 to 127.

WASHINGTON WILDLIFE MANAGERS WERE OFFERING LANDOWNERS IN SAN JUAN AND ISLAND COUNTIES UP TO $1,000 TO ALLOW HUNTERS ONTO THEIR PROPERTY THIS FALL, PART OF A BID TO ALSO REDUCE A LARGE BLACKTAIL POPULATION AND HELP OUT OTHER NATIVE FLORA AND FAUNA. JD LUNDQUIST BAGGED THIS BUCK ON HIS FAMILY’S ORCAS ISLAND HOMESTEAD IN 2017. (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

A one-year dip in District 17’s harvest back in 2017 puzzled biologist Anthony Novack, who reports the long-term trend is that the deer population is otherwise stable, and indeed last year’s harvest pretty much bounced back. If trends seen this decade are any indication, more will be harvested this year than in 2018 too. Top units are Capitol Peak (227), which also has the most public land, Wynoochee (204), which is mostly private timberland with varying access, and Minot Peak (157), again mostly private with some nonmotorized state land on its east end.

And in District 11, nearly half of all the bucks taken came out of the Skookumchuck (409), which includes Weyerhaeuser’s Vail Tree Farm. While the overall harvest trend in the South Sound and environs is down as timberlands go to fee access, graphs from biologist Michelle Tirhi show generally increasing buck take since 2012 in Puyallup, Anderson Island and Deschutes, but they have their own access and firearms restriction issues.

For more on WDFW’s expectations for 2019’s hunts, see the agency’s hunting forecasts at wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/locations/prospects.

YOU’VE HEARD OF A MIXED BAG IN FISHING. WELL, BEAU SMITH AND TRAVIS ALLSUP ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING ALONG THOSE LINES WHILE HUNTING LAST FALL. ALLSUP DROPPED A BLACK BEAR AND THEN A WHITETAIL BUCK, AND WHILE SMITH WAS SEARCHING FOR HIS OWN DEER, A FULL-GROWN MOUNTAIN LION MADE A CLOSE-RANGE APPEARANCE. “OUT OF PURE REACTION I PULLED UP MY RIFLE AND SQUEEZED. THE CAT FELL NOT 25 FEET FROM ME … IT WAS A 2018 DEER SEASON I WILL NEVER FORGET.” WE’LL SAY! (HUNTING PHOTO CONTEST)

$25 Million In Grants Aim To Ease Washington Fish Passage In 20 Counties

THE FOLLOWING IS A JOINT PRESS RELEASE FROM THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE AND THE WASHINGTON RECREATION AND CONSERVATION OFFICE

Migrating fish will soon have access to more than 82 miles of streams in Washington, thanks to $25 million in grants from the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board.

THERE’S A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL FOR FISH PASSAGE, THANKS TO THE AWARDING OF $25 MILLION TO COUNTIES, TRIBES AND OTHER ENTITIES TO REMEDY OLD CULVERTS AND OTHER STREAM CROSSINGS THROUGHOUT WASHINGTON. THIS IS A SKAGIT COUNTY PROJECT THAT’S IN THE DESIGN PHASE AND WILL OPEN 6.31 MILES OF HABITAT FOR E.S.A.-LISTED CHINOOK AND STEELHEAD. (RCO)

The board will fund more than 50 projects in 20 counties to remove fish passage barriers that block salmon and steelhead from swimming upstream to their spawning areas. The most common barriers to fish passage are culverts, which are large pipes or other structures that carry streams under roads. Culverts can be too high for fish to reach, too small to handle high water flows, or too steep for fish to navigate.

“These projects build on previous fish passage investments by the Washington State Department of Transportation, forest land owners, and local governments,” said Tom Jameson, WDFW fish passage manager and chair of the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board. “We’re excited that several projects will focus on watersheds that are particularly good habitat for chinook salmon, which are the main food source for southern resident killer whales (orcas). We appreciate the Legislature’s support so we can continue contributing to salmon and orca recovery.”

A LOW-FLOW FISH BARRIER IN LEWIS COUNTY’S SCAMMON CREEK. (RCO)

Created by the Legislature in 2014, the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board coordinates the removal of fish passage barriers on state, local, tribal, and private land that block salmon and steelhead access to prime spawning and rearing habitat. Funding comes from the sale of state bonds.

“This board represents an incredible partnership that ultimately helps us open entire watersheds where we can make the biggest impact for fish,” said Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Recreation and Conservation Office, which administers the grants. “A coordinated approach is key to helping fish reach the ocean, return home to spawn, and get to healthy habitats to feed, grow, and transition from saltwater to freshwater.”

ANOTHER FISH BARRIER IN LEWIS COUNTY THAT WILL BE CORRECTED, OPENING UP HABITAT ON THE MIDDLE FORK NEWAUKUM RIVER. (RCO)

Selected projects went through a technical review committee, which evaluated project proposals based on their coordination with nearby fish passage projects, benefit to salmon and steelhead populations listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and cost-effectiveness. The committee also evaluated projects based on the severity of the barrier and its location in the watershed, prioritizing downstream barriers first.

The grant program is administered as a partnership between the board, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. The board is named after Brian Abbott, who was a life-long fisherman, avid salmon recovery leader, and spearheaded creation of the board while serving as executive coordinator of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.

WALLA WALLA’S TRI-STATE STEELHEADERS SECURED ONE OF THE LARGEST GRANTS AWARDED, NEARLY $1.7 MILLION TO IMPROVE FISH ACCESS ON MILL CREEK. (RCO)

Other board members include representatives from the Washington Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources, Washington State Association of Counties, Association of Washington Cities, the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office, the Confederated Tribe and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and Council of Regions.

Below is a list of fish passage projects funded in each county. For project details, visit https://rco.wa.gov/documents/press/2019/FBRBGrantsDescriptions2019.pdf.

Asotin County……………………. $445,300
Chelan County…………………… $982,885
Clallam County………………….. $699,859
Clark County……………………… $155,200
Cowlitz County………………… $1,095,293
Grays Harbor County………….. $590,408
Island County…………………….. $544,718
Jefferson County………………… $397,163
King County……………………. $4,053,264
Kitsap County…………………. $2,561,337
Kittitas County…………………. $2,652,910
Lewis County………………….. $1,606,571
Mason County…………………. $1,180,395
Okanogan County……………. $2,265,251
Pierce County……………………… $90,000
Skagit County……………………. $378,500
Snohomish County……………… $653,483
Thurston County……………… $1,700,000
Walla Walla County………….. $1,785,641
Whatcom County……………….. $889,768

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WDFW Appealing Wenatchee Development Plan’s Low Deer Mitigations In Priority Habitat

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROMN THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) plans to appeal a decision by the City of Wenatchee that denies the department’s bid to require mitigation for impacts to mule deer from a 13-acre subdivision under development in the Wenatchee Foothills.

A PORTION OF A MAP SHOWING THE BLACK ROCK TERRACE DEVELOPMENT NEAR WENATCHEE. (CITY OF WENATCHEE)

The department intends to file its appeal in Chelan County Superior Court next week, said Jim Brown, WDFW regional director.

Brown said WDFW is concerned about the loss of prime mule deer habitat and the potential for human-wildlife conflicts resulting from the Black Rock Terrace development, located near Skyline Drive within Wenatchee’s city limits.

He noted that the land under development for a subdivision is designated by the state as priority mule deer habitat and supports the largest herd of wintering mule deer in Chelan County.

“We’re not trying to stop the project, but we do ask that the developer help to mitigate potential conflicts with deer and for lost wildlife habitat,” Brown said. “At minimum, we would expect conflicts to include an increase in collisions with deer and complaints about damage to landscaping around homes from deer eating ornamental plants.”

Mitigation measures sought by WDFW include:

Clustering development in order to maintain migration corridors for mule deer;
Adding signage cautioning drivers to watch for deer;
Installing deer fencing around the development to minimize human-deer interactions;
Shielding lights to reduce glare and light;
Using cattle guards across ungated driveways to keep deer out of yards;
Installing native shrub-steppe vegetation to provide a functional strip of habitat;
Requiring that pets be leashed when they’re outside fenced yards; and
Minimizing disturbance of vegetation on the property and controlling invasive and noxious weed species.

A city hearing examiner denied WDFW’s mitigation request at a hearing Dec. 14, 2018, and again on reconsideration Jan. 7, 2019.

Brown said WDFW designates the area scheduled for development as priority habitat for mule deer, and the City of Wenatchee’s comprehensive plan calls for “appropriate mitigation and enhancement measures” for development in habitat conservation areas.

The city acknowledged WDFW’s priority habitat designation in its Mitigated Determination of Non-significance environmental statement for the Black Rock project, but Brown said the only mitigation it required was installation of a six-foot fence.

Brown said the city relied on the applicant’s mitigation plan, which relied on an outdated 2010 report to characterize the project site as a “low” priority area for mule-deer habitat. More recent information that reflects the significant impact of recent wildfires on that area, he said.

“The project’s consultant has since said the site is frequently used by mule deer for winter foraging,” he said. “We simply want to work with the city to reduce the impacts of the project on mule deer and area residents before the development moves forward.”

2018 Washington Deer Hunting Prospects: A Better Hunt This Fall?

Following Washington’s worst deer season in 20 years, there are signs the harvest may rebound.

By Andy Walgamott

On the bright side, Washington deer hunters have nowhere to look but up after 2017, one of the worst falls in 20-plus years.

That might be the most positive way to look at this season’s prospects across the Evergreen State, where bowhunters took the field earlier this month, muzzleloaders at the end of September and riflemen give it a go starting the second Saturday of October.

A BIG HARVEST IN 2015 AS WELL AS DROUGHT, WINTERKILL AND THE SECOND LOWEST NUMBER OF HUNTERS AFIELD LED TO AN ABYSMAL HARVEST IN 2017 FOR WASHINGTON SPORTSMEN. DESPITE IT ALL, HUNTERS LIKE CHUCK HARTMAN WERE ABLE TO TAG OUT AND CAN LOOK FORWARD TO A POTENTIAL REBOUND THIS FALL. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

There actually are some good signs out there – solid postseason buck escapement numbers in places, an easy winter that should mean more available deer in previously hard-hit units, and a liberalized bag limit in a key area for certain weapons types.

But it will be interesting to see if the hangover from 2017, when only 23.6 percent of general season hunters tagged out – the second lowest this millennium – has worn off.

Indeed, following 2015’s decade-high overall harvest of 37,963 deer, nearly 11,500 fewer whitetails, muleys and blacktails were killed during 2017’s general and special seasons, the fewest in more than 20 years.

Part of that was probably due to a near-new low number of hunters last year – 106,977, down 46,000 from the last year of the 20th Century – but also lingering aftereffects of 2015’s harvest as well as drought and harsher recent winters that depressed deer production and numbers.

Still, crying in our beer ain’t gonna fill a tag, so here’s what biologists around Washington are forecasting for this season:

A SOUTHEAST WASHINGTON MULE DEER BUCK PUTS DISTANCE BETWEEN ITSELF AND PHOTOGRAPHER-HUNTER CHAD ZOLLER LAST FALL. POSTSEASON COUNTS FOUND GOOD NUMBERS OF BUCKS IN COLUMBIA BASIN UNITS, BUT LOWER FIGURES IN CHELAN AND OKANOGAN COUNTIES. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

NORTHEAST

In terms of sheer numbers, with all its whitetails and good habitat, harvest in the upper righthand corner of the state will always be hard to beat. And for this year, bowmen and muzzleloaders will again be able to take any whitetail, which hopefully produces an uptick in the take.

“My goal is to keep steadier harvest regulations,” says district biologist Annemarie Princee.

Following the windfall of the end of the four-point whitetail minimum in two key game management units in 2015 and bucks-only rules for the aforementioned weapons types the past two seasons, harvest declined by nearly 3,000 deer, or 37 percent.

But even as those two GMUs (Huckleberry, 49 Degrees North) saw sharp declines, other units – Kelly Hill, Douglas, Aladdin and Selkirk – have kept on keepin’ on, producing near-similar harvests year after year from 2013 to 2017, with generally steady days-per-kill needed to notch a tag.

OPENING DAY WAS GETTING A LITTLE LONG IN THE TOOTH IN PEND OREILLE COUNTY WHEN THIS WHITETAIL POPPED OUT IN FRONT OF KYLIE CAREY, WHO MADE GOOD ON THE SHOT. IT WAS HER FIRST TIME HUNTING. “AWESOME EXPERIENCE!” EXCLAIMS HUSBAND LEVI. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

In the region’s core, Stevens County, longterm deer counts show fawn numbers getting back to about average of the past 10 years after a new low in 2016, and that should mean more forked horns and spikes on the landscape. Buck numbers are about average, or at least were going into last season.

In their 2018 prospects document, Prince and assistant biologist Ben Turnock rank the Douglas and Huckleberry Units as best for modern firearm hunters. Those two yielded 1.38 and 2.23 deer per square mile last year, with 36.7 and 38.2 percent success rates.

They’re on the lighter side in terms of public land, but it’s a much different story with Kelly Hill, Aladdin, 49 Degrees North, Sherman and Selkirk. The bios rank the first two units higher than the others, but the third actually has a better harvest per square mile than either.

As a reminder, youth and disabled riflemen can take whitetail does the first two weekends of general season. Senior hunters nobly opted out to provide more opportunity for others.

Prince is also making a special plea to youth and disabled hunters who take a doe this fall to stop by the check station so that biologists can extract their animal’s jaw bone to study body conditions and monitor for chronic wasting disease.

A 320-YARD SHOT LED TO A NOTCHED TAG FOR CRAIG WESTLIN. HE WAS HUNTING NEAR POMEROY, IN SOUTHEAST WASHINGTON, WITH GUIDE JACK PEASLEY OF DEADMAN CREEK OUTFITTERS. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

UPPER SCABLANDS, PALOUSE

Where Northeast Washington hunting lives and dies by its whitetail numbers, mule deer contribute well to the harvest in Whitman, Lincoln and Spokane Counties, spreading the risk and opportunity. Unfortunately for hunters, both species are still in recovery mode from recent years’ environmental setbacks that led to a 25 percent general-season harvest decline between 2015 and 2017.

“Though the white-tailed deer population is starting to rebound from the 2015 blue tongue outbreak and 2016-17 winter, hunters should still expect to have to put in more time to be successful,” biologist Michael Atamian and Carrie Lowe write in their game prospects. “With fawn-to-doe ratios rebounding from the droughts of 2014 and 2015, mule deer numbers should also be on the increase. Hunters should still expect to put in more time than in previous years to be successful.”

Days per kill has doubled in the Roosevelt and Cheney, and Harrington and Steptoe Units versus how long it took to tag out in 2008, rising from roughly 10 and seven to 20 and 15, respectively. It’s also risen in the Almota Unit, though not as much, but it’s now taking fewer days to bag a deer in the Mt. Spokane Unit.

The far northern Palouse is very light on public land and even farms offering access through state programs, but there are many more cooperators in the heart of the loess and along the Snake River Breaks.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON! JACK BENSON, AGE 11, FOLLOWED UP ON HIS DAD JEFF’S FINE WALLA WALLA COUNTY MUZZLELOADER BUCK WITH A GREAT FIRST BUCK DURING THE RIFLE SEASON. “HE SET THE BAR HIGH FOR HIS FUTURE HUNTS,” JEFF NOTES. WE’LL SAY! (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

BLUE MOUNTAINS

Better hunting is still a year away, according to biologists Paul Wik and Mark Vekasy. They say that 2015’s drought and the heavy winter of 2016-17 knocked back fawn numbers and led to 2017’s “poor” season and unfortunately the effects will linger into this fall with reduced numbers of legal bucks. Between 2015 and 2017 general season harvest declined 20 percent.

We “do not expect a return to average harvest until the 2019 hunting season,” they write in their game prospects. “Consequently, populations available for 2018 harvest are not expected to improve much over the poor 2017 season.”

Looking at recent years’ stats, hunter success has cratered in the wilderness Wenaha Unit, and while it’s dropped everywhere, it hasn’t been as bad in some. Rimming the edge of the mountains, Blue Creek, Dayton, Marengo, Peola and Couse have seen relatively steady harvests. While the knock on them is the general lack of public ground, there is Feel Free To Hunt and other private land that’s available, along with portions of four wind energy facilities.

But if last year is any indication, the mostly public Lick Creek and half-public Mountain View Units will still yield bucks. And the almost entirely private Prescott Unit will produce the most; look to get permission to hunt Conservation Reserve Program lands and the breaks of the Snake.

Ranking all of their units by harvest, hunter density and success, and public access, the biologists rate Mayview, Peola and Couse highest, but Lick Creek the worst.

SOUTHERN BASIN

Mule deer fawn numbers didn’t dip as low in Franklin and Adams Counties as they did higher up in the Columbia Basin, but harvest declined by nearly a quarter here.

Still, last year’s postseason buck survey found a healthy 21 per 100 does, somewhat surprising given the open nature of this country. Some of those were obviously off-limits spikes and forked horns, and it’s possible the count included deer that had migrated in from the east and north, but it’s a good sign coming into this fall.

With greater than 9 out of every 10 acres privately owned, biologist Jason Fidorra points hunters to the patches of WDFW, DNR and BLM land scattered around the district, but the Kahlotus Unit has some pretty big chunks of Feel Free To Hunt and Hunt By Written Permission properties.

Muzzleloaders should be aware that, new for 2018, antlerless mule deer can no longer be taken during the late season in the Kahlotus, part of a changing strategy for managing the herd. That hunt was shifted later in the year, though, wrapping up after Dec. 8, which could mean some nice migratory bucks in the mix.

NO WORD ON WHETHER HE WAS HUNTING ON A FELLOW STATE LEGISLATOR’S MOUNTAIN RANCH, BUT REP. BRIAN BLAKE DID GET IT DONE IN THE SAME COUNTY, OKANOGAN, WITH THIS NICE MULEY. THE ABERDEEN DEMOCRAT IS THE CHAIR OF THE IMPORTANT HOUSE AGRICULTURE & NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE, OF WHICH REP. JOEL KRETZ, REPUBLICAN OF WAUCONDA, IS ALSO A MEMBER. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

OKANOGAN COUNTY

If there’s good news from Washington’s best mule deer country, it might be that a relatively strong 19 bucks per 100 does were counted on the winter range coming out of last year’s hunt.

“And with almost half of those being greater than or equal to three-points, older age-class buck availability looks good,” report district biologists Scott Fitkin and Jeff Henlein in their prospects.

But while 19 per 100 is at the top end of the management objective, it’s well below the gaudy highs of late falls earlier this decade, and probably a sign of reduced recruitment.

“Overall, total general season harvest and success rates are anticipated to be around the 2017 numbers, somewhere above the 10-year low and below the 5-year average,” the biologists forecast.

For the record, general season hunters killed 1,966 deer here last year, including 1,201 by riflemen, numbers that were down 43 and 54 percent, respectively, from 2015, a ridiculously good year when even blundering hook-and-bullet editors could notch a tag.

At this writing, things had been hot and dry for months and months, and that may concentrate deer on north-facing slopes where moisture can stick around a bit longer, the biologists suggest. But if rains have returned since, that may green things up a bit and spread the animals back across this beautiful sprawling landscape until high-country snows drive the bruisers to the winter range, providing good opportunities for those lucky enough to have drawn special permits.

Meanwhile, glass those burns – Tripod, Needles, etc. – for bucks foraging on high-quality browse, then put a sneak on them. But be aware that the Twisp River’s Crescent Fire caused a large-scale closure that may still affect access into the Gardner and Alta Units. See fs.usda.gov/okawen and inciweb.nwcg.gov for more.

IT DOESN’T ALWAYS SNOW DURING WASHINGTON’S EARLY WILDERNESS RIFLE DEER SEASON, BUT WHEN IT DOES AND WHEN A HUNTER BAGS A BUCK, IT MAKES FOR A GREAT PHOTO. SUCH IS THE CASE WITH JON JACKMAN, WHO WEATHERED A DAYS-LONG STORM, TO HUNT SOME HIGH MEADOWS ON HIS LAST FULL DAY AT A DROP CAMP. WHEN HE TOOK A LAST GLANCE BACK TO WHERE SOME DOES HAD GONE, HE SPOTTED HIS BUCK. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

CHELAN COUNTY

The story is similar to the south of the Okanogan but also more positive in part. Buck numbers declined to 18:100 does coming out of last season in vaunted Chelan County due to 2015 and winters, but across the river in Douglas County, the herd is more stable.

“Hunters should consider the Chelan population to be in a rebuilding phase for the next few years. Survey numbers in Douglas County are encouraging, with overall buck-to-doe ratios above the objective of 15 bucks per 100 does,” report biologists David Volsen and Devon Comstock.

They say that their district’s eastern herd should be bigger and provide more opportunities this season, at least to those with permission to hunt the high, open Mansfield Plateau and its nooks and crannies for generally smaller bucks on private land. The bios report that there is some 150 square miles of farms and ranches open through the Feel Free To Hunt and Hunt By Written Permission programs.

And unlike other recent large state acquisitions, the entire 21,140 acres of the Big Bend Wildlife Area – the former Grand Coulee Ranch – is open to general season hunting. Expect it to be crowded on the first rifle weekend, but a boat and a good map opens up possibilities on the upper south shore of Rufus Woods Lake. Note that this wildlife area is also the first to specifically prohibit e-bikes.

Volsen and Comstock estimated that in 2017 12,680 deer occurred in Douglas County, but the herd in Chelan County south of the big fjord declined from the 15,000 to 18,000 range to 11,000 as of two years ago. The good news is the bleeding has stopped in the latter county.

“Winter conditions in 2017-18 were more normal. Decreased overwinter mortality should allow the population to start recovering from declines,” they wrote.

In the short term they expect a “flatter” harvest of big bucks and that hunters will have to “work a little harder” to find legal animals this fall. But with a stable population, good to improving habitat and the ability of deer to repopulate fairly rapidly, the long-term outlook is good.

The district’s best unit, Entiat, was only singed by the Cougar Creek Fire, but the Chiwawa Unit had big closure areas at press time due to it. Watch the above websites for updates.

AFTER KYLIE RICE AND HER DAD RYNE SPOTTED THIS EASTERN WASHINGTON BUCK DURING THE LATE MUZZLELOADER HUNT, THEY STALKED TO WITHIN 92 YARDS, THEN RYNE TOOK THE SHOT. BUT THAT WASN’T THE END OF THE 9-YEAR-OLD’S EDUCATION – KYLIE FOLLOWED A 60-YARD BLOOD TRAIL TO THE DEER. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

WESTERN COLUMBIA BASIN

Not unlike Douglas County to the north, Grant and Adams Counties’ best units, Beezley and Ritzville, are mostly private, but last fall’s posthunt survey found buck:doe ratios above what you might expect out of this sort of country: 16- and 21:100. Both were up over the previous autumn, and fawn ratios were also “favorable” last year, with 71- and 73:100, respectively – well up from 2015’s “all-time lows.”

“Given the modest escapement of bucks in 2017 and likely good recruitment of fawns, hunters should expect an average year for mule deer hunting throughout the district,” report biologists Sean Dougherty and Ella Rowan.

Between three private-lands access programs, there are 200,000-plus acres hunters can get onto through reservations, written permission or just walking on. And despite no hunting unit having more than 15 percent public lands, outside of the permit-only Desert GMU, there’s a wide variety of federally or state-owned ground to look into.

WASHINGTON’S TEANAWAY’S STILL GOT IT FOR BIG BUCKS, IF BART OLSON’S BRUISER IS ANY INDICATION. HE BAGGED THIS MULEY DURING A RAINY DAY NEAR THE END OF THE OCTOBER HUNT. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

YAKIMA, KITTITAS COUNTIES

If you’re looking for a place to hunt with good road access, plenty of public land and loooooooow pressure, these two South-central Washington counties just might be for you. That’s also assuming you have little interest in notching a tag.

Indeed, there may be no grimmer district hunting forecast than the one issued by biologist Jeff Bernatowicz: “Wolves ate ’em all.”

Just kidding. He actually writes that last year’s harvest was the worst on record, the success rate was just 5 percent – two mountainous units produced just seven deer between them for 800 riflemen – and the age-class of bucks that should be on the landscape now is “missing.”

“No rebound is expected for 2018,” Bernie reports.

It’s actually pretty sad because this herd has been really struggling since the early 2000s. Recently things appeared to be slowly improving, thanks to three years of good fawn recruitment that helped spike the harvest to 1,019 deer in 2015, but that production fell off a cliff due to the aforementioned drought and winterkill, and last year only saw 499 taken.

NEW RESEARCH BY STATE WILDLIFE MANAGERS IS PROVIDING CLUES ABOUT WHERE TO LOOK FOR WESTSIDE BLACKTAIL BUCKS, LIKE THIS COWEEMAN UNIT THREE-POINT TAKEN BY BRANDON WILLIAMS DURING LAST YEAR’S LATE RIFLE HUNT. “IF A HUNTER SEES SIGNS OF DEER IN AN AREA, BUT NO DEER, THEY NEED TO BE PATIENT OR CHANGE THEIR APPROACH,” THEY COUNSEL. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

KLICKITAT

The harsh, lingering winter of 2016-17 and an adenovirus outbreak added up to “very low” success rates last fall on Washington’s side of the eastern Columbia Gorge, with lowest-in-a-decade-at-least harvests in the West and East Klickitat and Grayback Units.

But biologist Stephanie Bergh believes that things will begin to turn around this fall, and, even better, fawn survival coming out of last winter was back to historic levels for these units.

As a reminder, the Simcoe Wildlife Area is permit only. And new this year, Stevenson Land Company has closed two areas, Snowden and Gilmer, to the general public.

But another 65,000 acres of Western Pacific Timber lands west of Highway 97 is open for walk-in hunting, as are Hancock lands, for the time being.

HUNTING THE SAME NORTH CASCADES HILLS AS HIS FATHER GREW UP HUNTING WITH HIS GRANDFATHER, DIEGO DEL NAGRO MADE THE FAMILY PROUD WITH THIS OPENING-MORNING BLACKTAIL, SHOT AT 150 YARDS WITH THE 10-YEAR-OLD’S NEW .243. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

WESTSIDE

Last year’s harvest dropoff wasn’t just limited to Eastern Washington units – it was statewide, with all districts declining. Pacific and Grays Harbor County biologists Anthony Novack and Scott Harris report nearly 600 fewer deer were harvested in 2017 than 2016, which they termed “surprising and without an obvious biological cause.”

Part of that could be due to the aforementioned low hunter turnout, but a table the bios produced doesn’t show that much of a decline in South Coast numbers between the years. (More troubling is the long-term drop here, from 7,000 in 2008 to 4,500 in 2017, probably indicative of hunters aging out and the rise of access-fee policies).

For those who venture out for blacktail here or elsewhere on the Westside, they offer this advice based on deer collared in the Capitol State Forest:

“None of the deer monitored in WDFW’s study used an area larger than 0.38 square miles (243 acres). The average home range size was 0.14 square miles (86 acres). Some deer used an area no bigger than 45 acres in size during an entire year. If a hunter sees signs of deer in an area, but no deer, they need to be patient or change their approach.”

For more on WDFW’s deer studies, see the October issue’s South Sound column.

In Wahkiakum, Cowlitz and Lewis Counties, biologists Eric Holman and Nicholle Stephens expect hunting to be “good” this season, thanks to a mild winter.

Target regenerating clearcuts near taller second- and third-growth on state and private timberlands. Don’t have a trespass pass? WDFW’s Hunting page (wdfw.wa.gov/hunting) now has two different maps to help you find public land here and across the state.

But know that some huntable parcels may not be so readily visible, requiring extra work to sniff them out. For instance, some community forests on various Puget Sound islands are open under varying rules. Westside biologists’ online hunting prospects provide some details. 

With Land, Wildlife Boards’ Votes, Stemilt Basin Deal Completed

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES

The sale of 1,275 acres in Chelan County’s Stemilt Basin by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) completes a project that began in 2007 and has involved multiple community partners to protect habitat and outdoor recreation.

(DNR)

The Board of Natural Resources approved the transfer of two parcels eight miles south of Wenatchee today, following the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission’s approval April 13.

In 2013, both boards approved the sale and transfer of 1,268 acres in two adjacent parcels, bringing the final total of new WDFW property to 2,543 acres.

The land transaction was recommended by the Stemilt Partnership, a community based coalition of agriculture, wildlife, recreation, development, and conservation interests.

The Partnership was established by Chelan County in response to community concerns in 2007 when the four DNR sections were originally proposed for sale. By selling these lands, DNR managers could buy land elsewhere in the state better suited to producing revenue for the Common School Trust.

“Two state agencies, a county and an engaged community of diverse interests worked as partners to make this a landmark day for public outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat in Chelan County,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who chairs the Board of Natural Resources in addition to leading DNR.

WDFW secured federal Endangered Species Act funding to buy the remaining two sections of DNR trust land, appraised at $1,778,000, to protect Stemilt Basin habitat for elk, deer, wolves, and other wildlife species. The parcels, which are adjacent to Chelan County property, are managed as a unit of WDFW’s Colockum Wildlife Area. Land acquisition is one of many ways that WDFW carries out its statutory mandate to protect and preserve fish and wildlife habitat, while also providing hunting, fishing and other opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors.

“We’re managing this land on a broad watershed-wide basis that protects water supplies for fish and irrigated agriculture, along with critical wildlife habitat,” said Jim Brown, WDFW Northcentral Regional Director. “We’re balancing our management of traditional activities such as hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing, with multiple-use recreational access that the Partnership values.”

Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee, who worked with the Partnership for years as a Washington State Senator, called the transfer the fulfillment of ten years of commitment.

“I am thrilled that this transfer has finally happened,” said Parlette, who is currently an executive director with the Chelan-Douglas Health District. “I give a lot of credit to lead staff at Fish and Wildlife, DNR, and Chelan County, in addition to those individuals who tirelessly attended all of the meetings.”

(Editor’s note: During a hearing in Olympia, then-Sen. Parlette defended the importance of wildlife habitat in the Stemilt Basin when questions arose from another Republican former senator, Brian Dansel.)

Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay said the deal exemplifies what can be achieved through collaboration.

“I am pleased to see the community’s vision for this area coming to fruition,” Overbay said. “I commend all of the citizens and organizations who have worked tirelessly over the past decade to make this a reality.”

Wardens Have ‘Multiple Leads’ On Moose Poached Near Lake Wenatchee

Word that a moose was poached, had its head chopped off and was mostly wasted in Chelan County earlier this fall enraged many on Facebook, and they shared the call for tips widely, helping game wardens searching for whomever illegally killed the locally rare big game animal.

“We are currently following up on multiple leads obtained by hunters and citizens that were in the area around the time of the poaching,” says WDFW Officer Blake Tucker today. “We have had quite a bit of help from the public, which is what is going to get this case solved.”

As a hunter, I know it’s the health of the herd that matters the most, not so much the individual animal, and that critters at the edge of their range are naturally few and far between. But this one particularly galls me.

Though there’s not a hunting season here now, one day we’ll be able to put in for a bull permit or two, yet the illegal kill north of Lake Wenatchee may have pushed that further out into the future.

This is one of two main areas of Central Washington where moose are moving to from the core of their range in the state’s northeast corner, where 178 tags were available for this year.

A WDFW map shows a number of citizen observations in the upper Wenatchee River watershed just last year.

WDFW’S MOOSE OBSERVATION MAP SHOWS THE LOCATIONS OF 329 PUBLIC REPORTS IN 2016, 320 OF WHICH CORRESPOND WITH SIGHTINGS OF ACTUAL MOOSE. THE OTHER NINE REPORTS WERE NONSIGHTINGS, IMPORTANT DATA TO ALSO COLLECT TO BETTER DETERMINE POPULATIONS. (WDFW)

It was here that a decade or more ago I first heard of moose in the area: One of my dad’s old coworkers, Neil B., talked about seeing one up the Chiwawa.

That was a sign, it turned out. Moose are not unlike wolves in that young ones tend to disperse in search of good habitat, and they appear to be finding it — and one another.

In 2013, reader Mike Quinn, who hunts this part of the state, began telling me about moose he’d been spotting then capturing on trail cameras.

CHELAN COUNTY BULL MOOSE. (MIKE QUINN/FLICKR.COM)

Subsequent images from Quinn’s cams captured a couple little moose trains moving through the woods — in a 2014 photo, a cow and its bull calf followed by an adult bull, and in a 2016 shot, a cow and two calves.

The moose that was poached earlier this fall — its carcass was found about 50 yards off a logging road in the Meadow Creek area with only the head and a bit of meat taken — may or may not have been one of those animals. It’s a loss to a budding population either way.

IMAGES FROM THE SCENE WHERE A MOOSE WAS POACHED NEAR LAKE WENATCHEE EARLIER THIS FALL. (WDFW)

(WDFW

The aforementioned WDFW map is part of a two-page synopsis of the agency’s public moose survey program for last year, which suggests a high calf:cow ratio among those colonizing the eastern slopes of the North Cascades.

According to extrapolated data from 20 observations in Okanogan County — to the north of Chelan County — one could expect 83 calves per 100 cows there.

Admittedly, the sample size is small, and state wildlife biologists, aided by aircraft and tracking snow on the ground, might come up with a different ratio.

But for what it’s worth, that figure is four times as high as citizen reports for Pend Oreille County, where moose began filtering into the state in the 1950s and where the first few tags were offered in the 1970s.

If they’re that fecund in Okanogan County, it seems probable that those in Chelan County might be doing similarly well — possibly better with one less predator currently in the portfolio.

While Alces alces is often photographed belly deep in ponds, those in this part of the state are actually benefiting from changes on dry land.

The large-scale wildfires of recent decades “have improved moose habitat,” says WDFW, and that’s included the eruption of willows and other browse across blaze-scarred landscapes.

Last month, as we pulled a mule deer buck out of an area that has seen two major fires, there on the ground were the telltale round doots of a moose. A friend found the first such pellets not far away several years ago.

While moose numbers are clearly growing, it’s unknown how many are actually in Chelan and Okanogan Counties. Ironically, biologists need more data from people who don’t actually see any to get a better idea of how many there might be.

“To obtain accurate data, we need more dedicated participants who will not only submit a report when they see a moose, but also report hours afield when they do not see any moose. For example, if you plan to deer hunt for four consecutive days, submit a report for each day you are hunting, whether you see a moose or not,” says WDFW’s moose man, Jared Oyster, in the annual survey report for 2016.

Year-over-year trends are helpful, but knowing how many bulls, cows and calves are in the area will go a long way towards setting up a limited hunt once a big enough herd has established itself.

Unfortunately, there’s now one fewer moose around Lake Wenatchee because some jackass or jackasses poached it, stealing the future from legitimate hunters.

Anyone with information on the case can contact WDFW’s regional office at (509) 662-0452 and ask for Officer Tucker.

Whomever’s guilty faces as much as $9,000 in fines and penalties and up to a year in jail.

Reasons For Hope Inside 2017 Buck Hunting Forecast For The 509

Though some Eastern Washington mule deer and whitetail herds took a hit last winter, hunters shouldn’t see much of a dropoff overall this fall.

Editor’s note: The bulk of this article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine.

By Andy Walgamott

As last winter dragged on, and on, and on, and on some more, concerns rose that Eastern Washington’s mule deer and whitetails could take a pretty serious hit from the worst cold weather in two decades.

Some did – those on the eastern flanks of the Blue Mountains and in Klickitat County, where cold, snowy conditions lasted months longer than usual.

Overall, Eastern Washington deer hunters will find decent prospects this fall, with good hunting for muleys and whitetails expected in key districts, though some southerly portions of the 509 may see impacts from this past harsh, long winter. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

But herds elsewhere appear to have escaped the brunt of it, and they should produce decent to good hunting as seasons begin this month and continue with October’s rifle hunt and November’s late buck opportunities.

The point may be best illustrated by a survey from about as far north in the 509 as you can get without leaving the Evergreen State. Dana Base, the district wildlife biologist for the state’s best whitetail country, had just begun the 20 annual late-summer surveys he and fellow bio Annemarie Prince run at press time. He reported spotting 37 deer on the Aladdin route, up where Pend Oreille and Stevens Counties take on shades of northern British Columbia, the most since 2014 and above average since 2011.

“When we have bad winters, deer up there die,” Base notes.

Now, 37 deer spotted amongst a statewide population of an estimated 300,000 doesn’t mean very much, but when you consider that that’s above average for that survey route since 2011, and three times as many as in 2015, well, there just might be reason for hope this season. And really, that’s all a deer hunter needs.

Here’s a roundup of prospects from around Eastern Washington:

REPUBLIC, COLVILLE, NEWPORT

Admittedly, last year’s deer harvest was down up here, but there was no way 2016 was ever going to top 2015, when the four-point minimum for whitetail came off two breadbasket units. WDFW reports the all-weapons general-season harvest at 6,238 last year, well below the prior hunt’s 7,960, a fair portion of which was on the “windfall” of spikes, forked horns and three-points that were back in the bag in Huckleberry and 49 Degrees North Units.

While Base believes there will be lingering effects from 2015’s deer-killing blue-tongue outbreak, especially in the valleys, year after year, the only part of the state that can match the annual harvest here is the Mt. Spokane Unit, which is right next door. There’s no reason to believe that won’t be true again in 2017, though you might fine-tune where you hunt.

Whether you’re an archer, muzzleloader or rifleman, the key is to put in time in the field. Many of us will tag out on the openers, but those who stick to it and do lots of glassing like Logan Braaten here increase their odds of successfully tagging out. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Northeast Washington presents a mosaic of high and midelevation federal and state forests, corporate timberlands, valley-bottom ranches and farms, and large private residences. If you have or have access to land in the Colville Valley, you should be OK, but Base is advising freelancers to maybe look elsewhere than Haller Creek, Monumental and Williams Lake Road, where the deer are still in recovery mode from disease two years ago.

“You find the right places in the national forest, you’ll find deer,” notes Base. ““There are actually whitetail up at Bunchgrass Meadows – not a lot, but more than you’d expect … There are deer up Smackout – not 20 to 40 per square mile like elsewhere here, but a huntable population. An experienced hunter will get into them.”

Get ahold of his game prospects and you may notice that the Aladdin Unit scores pretty highly. Another sleeper spot may be the backside of the Selkirk Unit, at its lower, southern end, where it’s primarily national forest land shot through with logging roads. Just be sure you’re on the Washington side of the border before pulling the trigger.

It may be a bit early yet, but don’t forget that some of the mule deer country in Base’s district has also seen big fires in recent years. The Stickpin Fire in 2015 on the Kettle Crest of the Sherman Unit was a “stand replacement” blaze. That’s not the easiest place to get into, but it may bear watching as it revegetates.

One major change of note for this year is that there will be no general season antlerless opportunities for 65-and-older archers, muzzleloaders and riflemen, as in recent years. Base says that local whitetail stakeholders actually lobbied for the restriction:

“‘Hey, we’ll take the hit, we want to promote youth hunters,’” he says they offered.

On a side note, you might bring your scattergun come the Oct. 7 topknot opener. Base says he thought the snowpack would kill off the quail, but he’s been seeing “tons of broods under 3,000 feet.”

Bottom line for Northeast Washington deer hunters this fall?

“Don’t give up, especially if you’re a buck hunter in November,” says Base. “It’s not the glory days of the early 2000s or the 1980s, but there are fewer hunters now.”

Top 2016 general season harvests: Huckleberry: 2,014, all weapons (259 five-plus-pointers, 759 four-points, 412 three-points, 184 two-points, 241 spikes, 159 antlerless); Hunter success: 38.2 percent, Douglas, modern firearms; Days per kill: 12.2, Douglas, modern firearms.

More info: District 1 Hunting Prospects

ODESSA, CHENEY, COLFAX

While deer harvest was down in the units of the upper Channelled Scablands, Palouse, Snake River breaks and fields and forests north of Spokane last year over 2015, it wasn’t as sharp of a dropoff as it was to the north. Hunters hung 4,817 whitetails and muleys in 2016, compared to 5,660 the previous season. It was more of an across-the-board dropoff, likely due to widespread blue-tongue impacts. But look for the herds to bounce back this year. 

“I suspect white-tailed deer hunters will have better success this year relative to last year, but still lower than prior to 2015,” says biologist Michael Atamian. “The population is recovering, but is not back to preoutbreak levels.”

Frank Workman of Tacoma anchored this three-point Snake River mule deer buck on Oct. 22 with a single, 150-yard uphill shot from his Ruger bolt-action, chambered in .308 Winchester. Workman is the younger brother of Northwest Sportsman columnist Dave Workman. (RICK FINCH)

Some more good news:

“This winter was a hard one, but we did not see or get reports of high numbers of mortalities like we got in the severe winters of 2007-08 and ’08/09,” says Atamian. “Mule deer appear to have weathered the winter fairly well in my district, moving south and west as the winter worsened and taking advantage of winter wheat and the south-facing slopes that opened earlier. I suspect success will be similar to last year for mule deer hunters in my district.”

As you undoubtedly know, Atamian’s beat probably has the lowest percentage of public land in the state, so most of the deer harvest comes off of private farmlands, ranches and woodlots.

On Grace Smith’s first hunt she harvested this nice four-point muley on the opener using a .243 given to her by her grandfather on her 11th birthday. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

If you haven’t already secured permission to hunt those, your next best bet is to turn to WDFW’s Private Lands Hunting Access pages to scout out Feel Free To Hunt, Register To Hunt, Hunt By Written Permission and Hunt By Reservation properties.

Also scope out the agency’s Go Hunt map for scattered WDFW, Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service parcels in areas like Swanson Lakes, Lake Creek, Crab Creek, headwaters of Sprague Lake and fringing Mt. Spokane and Lake Roosevelt and the Spokane Arm’s south shore. On the peak and to the south around Mica Peak are Inland Empire Paper lands (iepco.com) that may or may not require purchasing a pass to access.

Top 2016 general season harvests: Mt. Spokane: 2,176, all weapons (295 five-plus-pointers, 581 four-points, 376 three-points, 201 two-points, 303 spikes, 420 antlerless); Hunter success: 39.8 percent, Roosevelt, archery; Days per kill: 9.2, Almota, modern firearm.

More info: District 2 Hunting Prospects

DAYTON, POMEROY, ASOTIN

Unlike elsewhere in Eastern Washington, Blue Mountains units did not see as sharp a dropoff between 2015’s and 2016’s harvests. Hunters bagged 2,758 during general seasons two years ago and just one hundred fewer last fall. Riflemen killed just seven fewer last October, 2,118, over the previous one.

That points to a pretty stable population of muleys and whitetails, but this year will probably see a bit of a turbulence.

Unlike elsewhere on the Eastside, Blue Mountains units didn’t see the sharp drop in harvest between 2015 and 2016, and things are looking good for whitetails and mule deer this year. Madelynn Olson bagged this four-by-five on private land near Waitsburg with a 200-yard shot last fall. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

“The winter definitely took its toll, especially in the Grande Ronde River drainage and other parts on the east side of the district,” says assistant wildlife biologist Mark Vekasy. “In general, deer went into winter in good condition, and that kept the situation from being truly catastrophic. We expect to see harvest declines on the east side of the district in GMUs 169 (Wenaha), 172 (Mountain View), 175 (Lick Creek) and possibly parts of 181 (Couse). Over the rest of the district, we had enough periods of snow melt-off in the foothills, and only short periods thick snow crust elsewhere, that deer generally were able to reach forage, and seemed to come out of the winter in good condition.”

Wind and rain made for tough conditions during his muzzleloader hunt near Walla Walla, but Randy Hart hunt in there and on put the smackdown on this three-pointer. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

So, unless you’ve already scouted out a buck, you might adjust away from the core and eastern side of the Southeast Washington range. That’s too bad, because Vekasy says the Tucannon and Wenaha Units had been showing signs of improved harvest. However in Lick Creek, he says hunter numbers have nearly doubled since 2001, but harvest stats are going the opposite way.

“We are likely harvesting a high proportion of the legal deer in the unit,” Vekasy reports. “There is no antlerless opportunity in the unit, except for the Youth Blue Mts Foothills East tags, so there’s not much we can do to limit harvest in this unit. The Asotin Creek Wildlife Area has had some recent land additions, and with weed treatments and other habitat work, we hope to see some response from the mule deer herd.”

A break in a week of bad weather wracking the Blues last October spurred this mule deer to get up and walk into Gary Lundquist’s sights. If you look close you’ll see a bit of a droptine off his buck’s right antler. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

On the northwest side of the Blues, the Dayton Unit’s hunter success has held above 23 percent the past two years, and he expects good hunting.

“Most of the increase in success and harvest per unit effort in this game management unit has been due to the white-tailed deer harvest, presumably indicating healthy whitetail populations. Mule deer harvest in GMU 162 has been variable with no definitive trends, but deer went into winter in good condition, and winter range conditions in that GMU were not too severe, so we’re looking for a slight uptick in harvest this year,” Vekasy says.

In the foothills units immediately ringing the Blues, he expects the consistent 30 percent success rate in Blue Creek to continue, thanks to a “stable to gradually increasing whitetail population” and stable muley herd. He notes that the harvest has held steady even as hunter numbers have climbed by several hundred.

A Blue Mountains foothills whitetail buck spots a hunter. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

The Marengo Unit in the middle Tucannon has seen a bit of a decline, possibly because of extra antlerless permits two years ago as well as bluetongue, but Vekasy says that with deer having gone into last winter in good condition, he expects harvest to tick back up.

He’s also forecasting a steady-as-she-flows harvest in the remote Grande Ronde Unit, which is tucked on the southern side of the river, with good amounts of state and federal land.

As you fan away from the Blues, deer harvest climbs while public ground fizzles out. A surge in permits in Prescott and Mayview in 2015 may have led to pruned-back success rates last year a bit, but Vekasy still expects 36 and 30 percent of hunters to score again this fall. Peola will probably hold steady at 42 percent. Those three units are his top choices for continued good hunting, but he advises getting on the Go Hunt site and checking out private land access. He reports losing some properties in Prescott that are being pulled from the Conservation Reserve Program, a trend that could intensify next year.

Jenny Cunningham, Bruce Ward and Sydney Cunningham enjoyed a good deer season on public land in Southeast Washington. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

If you’re looking to get away from the crowds in Lick Creek, you might head for the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

“GMU 169 has low deer densities annually, but we did see a surprising number of mule deer in the high country during elk surveys, so I’m not sure it will be that much different than usual; low densities but some good quality in the backcountry,” he says.

Consider it scouting for a few more years from now, when the Grizzly Bear Complex wildfire really starts regenerating.

“Forage conditions were difficult to assess this year during aerial surveys, and I haven’t been out on the ground yet to check the large burns in the wilderness. The burns were already looking good last year, and we expect habitat conditions will only continue to improve, as long as we get adequate moisture, and hope to see a response from the mule deer herds in the wilderness,” Vekasy says.

Top 2016 general season harvests: Prescott: 553, all weapons (95 five-plus-pointers, 222 four-points, 173 three-points, 66 antlerless); Hunter success: 51.2 percent, Mayview, muzzleloader; Days per kill: 6.9, Peola, modern firearms.

More info: District 3 Hunting Prospects

MAZAMA, TONASKET, PATEROS

Stop me if you’ve read this already, but the horrible wildfire and drought conditions that led to a stellar season two years ago were never going to return for an encore – and thank god for that – and indeed may have been a once-in-a-generation harvest under the current three-point muley min. Last fall saw a harvest of 2,717 deer in the Okanogan, down from 3,603 the previous season.

“Although a decrease from the banner harvest in 2015, this total is still right at the five-year average and about 14 percent above the 10-year average,” notes district bio Scott Fitkin in his game prospects.

“It’s all about patience and timing,” says Chuck Hartman, who followed up a whopper 2014 Okanogan mule deer with this dark-horned beaut. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

What’s more, he expects things to hold steady in 2017.

“Heavier than average fawn mortality (67 percent versus the long-term average of 53 percent) during the 2015-16 winter could potentially mean a dip in 2½-year-old buck availability,” Fitkin reports. “However, this was offset by an uptick in post-season buck escapement, as evidenced by an observed sex ratio of 20 bucks per 100 does as compared to 16 per 100 the previous year. Total harvest and success rates overall are anticipated to be near the 2016 numbers and around the 10-year average.”

The backcountry of Okanogan and Chelan Counties is known for producing bruiser bucks, thanks in part to regenerating burns but also vast escape cover. Dan Gitchell downed this muley on the edge of the Pasayten Wilderness on last year’s fifth day. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

He says the population of the state’s largest mule deer herd as well as the Okanogan’s whitetails are doing fine because of great summer range, regular fall green-up and only moderate winters up here.

While the middle ground scorched by massive conflagrations of recent years may still be a few years away from producing the points and pounds of the legendary Tripod Buck, don’t overlook hunting the backcountry burn scars of the Thirty-mile, Farewell and Needles Fires up the Chewuch River, Eightmile Creek and Lost River, the biologist advises.

You can say that again and again! Chad Smith, center says that he and friends Kyle McCullough and Kiel Hutchinson enjoyed “a great opening weekend in Okanogan County.” Two of their muleys were shot on Saturday, one the following morning, and all were on public land. “Great weekend I’ll never forget,” Smith adds. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Those pastures, if you will, as well as those on the divide between the Chewuch and Okanogan drainages, are good bets. Otherwise, bucks tend to be a bit scattered in the early bow and general rifle seasons, not moving towards the lowlands till late in October or even November.

Rob Clarey reports his buddy Brent Antonius is now hooked on hunting, thanks to finding success on just his third day afield. Clarey, who also bagged a four-point, accompanied Antonius on a hunter ed deferral. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

In a bit of a contrast to elsewhere in the state, the public-land units compete pretty well, including Chewuch, Pearrygin, Sinlhakein and Chiliwist. Tops of all is Okanogan East, which does include a large percentage of ranches and hay farms but also a lot of national forest, BLM and some state ground. It’s also home to a 50-50 split between muleys and flagtails. In that unit, as well as across the river in the Pogue and Chiliwist, Fitkin says WDFW is managing towards a stable to slightly declining deer herd to keep it in line with available winter browse.

If there’s a wild card for this season, it was the extended hot, dry conditions of summer. From the vantage point of early August, it’s hard to predict October, but there’s a whiff of 2015 in the air, and not just smoke from the Diamond Creek Fire in the Pasayten Wilderness.

As snow fell on Washington’s opening deer, Jeff Boulet notched his tag with this Winthrop three-point. (JEFF BOULET)

“If this weather pattern continues, expect the high country to be drier than usual,” says Fitkin. “If so, then deer might start moving toward winter range early – tail end of the general season – similar to what hunters saw in 2015.”

Yep, boss, I’ll again be gone through that second Tuesday, Oct. 24.

Top 2016 general season harvests: Okanogan East: 739, all weapons (128 five-plus-pointers, 254 four-points, 196 three-points, 42 two-points, 47 spikes, 72 antlerless); Hunter success: 29.2 percent, Chiliwist, muzzleloader (low sample size); Days per kill: 15, Pogue, muzzleloader (low sample size)

More info: District 6 Hunting Prospects

CHELAN, PLAIN, WATERVILLE

Whether it’s payment coming due after a string of good seasons or something else, you may not have as easy of a time finding a legal buck on the Chelan County side of WDFW’s District 7, but the Douglas County quarter should continue its productive pace, thanks to a stable population.

The agency reports last year’s general season harvest was 1,691 (1,148 for modern firearms hunters) in the North-central Washington neighbors, down from 2,275 (1,631).

Brian “Ought-Six” Johnson and hunting partner and brother Drew “Sticks” Johnson teamed up to take down this symmetrical muley five-point Douglas County, Wash. Brian bagged it with just 15 minutes of shooting light left in season, with his Winchester 30-06. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

If there’s good news, it’s that the coveted upper Entiat Valley is once again open after being closed by the Forest Service’s district ranger for the past two High Buck Hunts due to fires and burn-scar safety concerns. The bad news, however, is that you’ll need to bring your levitating boots to get around downed timber on trails.

Biologist Dave Volsen says that last fall’s postseason surveys south of Highway 2 in Douglas County found 20 bucks for every 100 does, including some dandies. That part of the Waterville Plateau contains more public land than you might imagine, though a lot of it is wide open or steep and rocky talus, making hunting more difficult.

“Once we moved into the portions of the county with high road densities, open habitat, and increased access, the majority of the bucks observed following hunting season were spikes and two-point bucks,” he notes.

Volsen reports high fawn production last year, and good foraging conditions probably helped most make it through the heaviest winter here in about seven years. That’s good news for 2018’s 21/2-year-old bucks, assuming this coming cold season isn’t a doozy.

Odd years are for pink salmon, and evens are for Bill Waite and Brock Boyer to bag nice Chelan County muleys, we guess! They appeared in our 2014 yearbook with two studs. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Over in Chelan County, spring surveys south of the fjord found fewer deer this year than last, 11,000 versus 15,000. Why that was is hard to say, and while last winter didn’t come close to the bad winter of 1996-97, which drove implementation of the three-point minimum, it was “more significant” than any in the past half decade, says Volsen.

“This past winter, snow depths were higher, they extended farther downward onto winter range, and their duration into spring much longer. As a result, there was a decrease in the mule deer population in Chelan County,” he reports.

It comes after a good string of years.

“That fact, in combination with the fact that we harvested a larger portion of the older aged class bucks accumulating in the population, means that we will have to work a little harder to find bucks this year in Chelan County,” says Volsen. “We cut back on antlerless opportunity this fall to allow the population to rebound faster, minimizing any additional decrease in the productive part of the population.  We also reduced this year’s late-season buck permits, not for the purpose of recovery, but because these are quality hunts, and if hunters are going to use their points on a permit, it gives those hunters drawn the potential for increased success.”

Featuring a largely migratory herd, the public-land-rich county’s top units are actually in the front country, the well-roaded Entiat, followed by Swakane and Mission. The more forested Chiwawa Unit kicks out fewer bucks, but a higher percentage are five points or better.

Chad White’s harvested his share of Westside blacktails, but in 2016 he tried his hand hunting muleys — “I am hooked,” he reported after anchoring this nice buck. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

In Douglas County, Big Bend has a fair amount of state land and produces the most bucks, but the knock on it and most units here is the overwhelming amount of private land and roads around many sections. Still, there are a fair number of access options to consider on Go Hunt.

Top 2016 general season harvests: Entiat: 296, all weapons (29 five-plus-pointers, 88 four-points, 108 three-points, 71   antlerless); Hunter success: 57.2 percent, Moses Coulee, muzzleloader; Days per kill: 4.9, Moses Coulee, muzzleloader

More info: District 7 Hunting Prospects

TROUT LAKE, GOLDENDALE, BICKLETON

Few places in Washington saw the winter that the eastern flanks of the Southern Cascades did, and that along with a confirmed adenovirus outbreak this summer will have ramifications this season and in coming ones.

“Success may be lower this year mainly due to our severe, prolonged winter on both sides of the Cascades,” predicts biologist Stefanie Bergh. “Klickitat County saw snow on the ground December through March, which is unheard of and very hard on all wildlife species, including deer. We had more calls than normal about winterkill, so success in the next couple of hunting seasons could be lower.”

Buzz Ramsey scored the Northwest trifecta in 2016, killing muleys in Oregon, Idaho (ask him about his little adventure in the canyon in the dark) and Washington, with this healthy specimen that yielded 130 pounds of meat to pack out. (BUZZ RAMSEY)

That’s unfortunate, because the three units here are something of sleepers. In 2015, West Klickitat, Grayback and East Klickitat yielded 1,214 deer (798 for riflemen), though last year saw fewer tags notched (828 and 612, respectively).

West Klickitat has the most public or publicly accessible ground, but the Klickitat Wildlife Area in western Grayback is popular too. Bergh warns that this fall will see some logging in its largest unit, Soda Springs. How that will affect access or deer movement remains to be seen. 

Also be aware that the new Simcoe Mountain Unit, which was open for all hunters last year, is now a draw-only opportunity.

Top 2016 general season harvests (east of Cascade Crest): East Klickitat, all weapons (30 five-plus-pointers, 101 four-points, 184 three-points, 24 antlerless); Hunter success: 33.6 percent, East Klickitat, archery; Days per kill: 12.7, East Klickitat, modern firearm

More info: District 9 Hunting Prospects

THE REST OF EASTERN WASHINGTON

Benton, Franklin counties, per WDFW Biologist Jason Fidorra’s District 4 Hunting Prospects: “In northern Benton County (GMU 372), spend some time scouting for deer in the Thornton and Rattlesnake units of the Sunnyside/Snake River Wildlife Area. Deer Area 3372 -Sunnyside (Benton and  Yakima counties) was created in 2016 to provide additional general season opportunities along the Yakima River from Prosser to Union Gap, including an early muzzleloader season and late archery and late muzzleloader seasons. In southern Benton County (GMU 373), there are small groups of deer available to hunters on land in the Horse Heaven Hills, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, scattered tracts of DNR, and private property in our access programs. The USFWS’s Umatilla NWR Deer Areas 3071 (Whitcomb) and 3072 (Paterson) units provide 80 special permits required to harvest deer on the NWR, including two archery periods in October and three muzzleloader hunts from November into December. Youth, buck, and antlerless permits are available on both units. Please consult the current hunting regulations for more details.”

Adams, Grant, Counties, per WDFW Biologist Rich Finger’s District 5 Hunting Prospects: “Most deer harvest occurs in GMUs 272 (Beezley) and 284 (Ritzville), where 10-year average post-hunt buck:doe ratios from ground surveys are 13:100 and 15:100, respectively. Fawn: doe ratios rebounded in 2016 after all-time lows in 2015. The rebound is likely in response to favorable weather conditions that helped increase fawn survival and will help to increase hunting opportunities over the next couple of years.”

Kittitas, Yakima Counties, per WDFW biologist Jeff Bernatowicz’s District 8 Hunting Prospects: “Deer harvest in District 8 has been down from historic highs for a number of years. The average hunter success the last five years has been eight Percent compared to a statewide average of 28 percent. Following a sharp decline from 2004-2006, the harvest has been relatively static. There was an increase in harvest in 2015 following three mild winters with good fawn recruitment. Unfortunately, the hot, dry summer of 2015 was followed by a two relatively hard winters, which has decreased the herd. Much of the harvest is likely 2-3 year-old bucks. Fawns lost the winter of 2015-16 would comprise a large portion of the 2017 harvest. Harvest will likely decline in 2017 through 2018.”