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Idaho Steelheading Will Remain Open, Outside Of Salmon, SF Clearwater Stretches


The Idaho Fish and Game Commission on Friday, Dec. 7 approved an agreement to keep most steelhead seasons open, but steelhead fishing in two areas will close effective 11:59 p.m. Dec. 7, 2018.


Closures include:

  • The Main Salmon River between Warren Creek and the Copper Mine Boat Ramp.
  • South Fork of Clearwater River upstream of the Mount Idaho Grade Bridge. (See maps below)

The commission also acted to continue the one steelhead daily bag limit through the end of 2018 and into the 2019 spring season.

“I’m glad our anglers and outfitters can continue steelhead fishing,” Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said. “It’s unfortunate that a delay in receiving federal authorization for our recreational steelhead fisheries created contention and hardship for river communities and anglers. This resolution achieves the commission’s objective to limit impacts to steelhead fishing as much as possible while we remain focused on finally receiving federal approval of our steelhead fishery plan for the long term.”

The continuance of steelhead fishing results from an agreement between Fish and Game, the Idaho River Community Alliance, Inc. and five groups that threatened to sue Idaho officials over the lack of federal authorization for steelhead fishing in the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater River systems.

Moore said he appreciates various parties working together, and commended Idaho Rivers United for dropping its involvement in a potential lawsuit and helping forge the agreement among the various groups.

The agreement is in effect until the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) approves Idaho’s steelhead fisheries plan under the Endangered Species Act, or March 15, 2019, whichever date is earlier.

As part of the agreement, members of the Idaho River Community Alliance, Inc. will voluntarily take a few additional measures when steelhead fishing. These measures are separate from the commission’s decision, and they are not Fish and Game rules.

Idaho sought renewal in 2010 for an expiring NMFS authorization for wild steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act that could potentially be harmed during Idaho fisheries for hatchery steelhead. NMFS’ permitting backlog delayed approval for years, but Idaho steelhead fishing seasons continued with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s (which NMFS is within) knowledge and consistent with Fish and Game’s submitted plan.

Earlier this year, NOAA began reviewing the plan, and an updated plan is available for a  public comment through Dec. 13, 2018. Fish and Game expects NMFS approval of its plan later this winter.

In October, a group of six organizations threatened a lawsuit over Fish and Game’s lack of formal federal authorization from NMFS. To avoid the potential for court-ordered changes and payment of these organizations’ legal costs, Fish and Game commissioners voted on November 14 to suspend the most steelhead fishing effective at the end of Dec. 7. That is the earliest day the organizations could file a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act, but that suspension is now voided except in the new closure areas.

Salmon River closure


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South Fork Clearwater River closure


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Idaho Fish Commission To Meet On Steelhead Season This Evening

Idaho steelhead season is on the agenda of an unexpected Fish and Game Commission teleconference set for tonight, just hours before a fishing closure is otherwise set to go into effect.

What does that mean?


“Whatever you want to read into it” is the official word from IDFG spokesman Roger Phillips in Boise.

However, outdoor reporter Eric Barker at the Lewiston Tribune who has been doing an excellent job covering the situation reports that state officials, environmental groups that threatened the state with a federal lawsuit if it didn’t close the season, and the newly formed Idaho River Community Alliance of anglers and others were discussing the situation yesterday “in an effort to reach a settlement.”

The agenda for the 7:30 p.m. Mountain Time, 6:30 p.m. Pacific time meeting is stamped with the words “Action Item” in red which suggests that the seven-member commission will be voting on something.

In mid-November, the commission was forced to suspend the fishery starting Dec. 8 because of the state’s lack of a NMFS permit to hold steelhead season. IDFG long ago applied for a new one, but as the feds worked on other priorities it left Idaho vulnerable to a lawsuit, which Wild Fish Conservancy and five other groups took advantage of.

One, Idaho Rivers United, has subsequently backed out of the group, saying its goal of getting NMFS to start working on the fisheries permit had been accomplished. The comment period on that has now been extended from yesterday to Dec. 13.

Whatever decision the commission makes this evening, Phillips says he plans to send out a press release right after that occurs.

Meanwhile, IRCA this morning reported on its Facebook page that anglers and boats have already begun showing in Riggins for a planned Saturday protest.

Columbia Sea Lion Bill Passed By US Senate

The U.S. Senate has passed a key bill that would make it easier for state and tribal managers to protect ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in the Lower Columbia from California sea lions.


“What a day!” said an almost-speechless Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association this afternoon. “Maybe we’ll be able to stave off some extinctions.”

S.3119, known as the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Act, does need to be reconciled with a nearly identical version that was passed by the US House and be signed into law before the end of the year by President Trump, but it’s good news for fish and fishermen who’ve watched helplessly as sea lions have chowed down on Chinook, coho, steelhead and other stocks.

It amends the Marine Mammal Protection Act for five years to allow for the lethal removal of California sea lions in the Columbia downstream of Bonneville Dam and upstream to McNary Dam,  as well as in the river’s tributaries with ESA-listed salmonids.

“It’s such an important piece of legislation,” said Hamilton. “So little gets done, especially for fish.”

A Northwest Power and Conservation Council report from late last month said that NOAA researchers found sea lions ate from 11 to 43 percent of spring Chinook that entered the Columbia annually since 2010, with 2014’s run hit particularly hard — an estimated  104,333 ESA-listed Upper Columbia springers “were lost between Astoria and the dam to the unexplained mortality, which the chief researcher, Dr. Michelle Wargo-Rub, said can be attributed to sea lions.”

The states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho have had federal permission to remove specific animals gathered at Bonneville Dam since March 2008. This bill extends that authority to the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs Tribes and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Today’s move also follows on federal fishery overseers’ recent move to allow ODFW to remove sea lions at Willamette Falls, where if nothing had been done, the state estimated that at least one run of wild winter steelhead had a 90 percent chance of going extinct.

Earlier this year, NMFS found that California sea lions had reached their habitat’s carrying capacity. Almost all if not all that visit the Northwest to snack on salmonids are males.

Hamilton credited a “a coalition like no other” for the heavy lift.

In Congress, that came from a bipartisan group of Northwest lawmakers — Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Jim Risch (R-ID) to get the bill through the upper chamber after Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-3) and Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-5) sponsored one in the House.

“We greatly appreciate the bipartisan efforts of Senators Cantwell and Risch to secure Senate passage of this critical legislation,” said Gary Loomis, founder of G-Loomis, Edge Rods, and Coastal Conservation Association in the Pacific Northwest, in a press release. “Current law is failing wild and endangered Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead populations, some of which face an imminent risk of extinction if nothing is done to address the unnatural levels of sea lion predation and restore balance to this unique Ecosystem. Every member of the U.S. House of Representatives – Republican and Democrat – from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho voted for similar legislation this summer and the six U.S. Senators from these states came together to pass this critical legislation to protect our salmon.”

According to CCA’s Tyler Comeau, the bill was passed by “unanimous consent,” expediting its passage through the Senate for lack of objections. He said his organization believes it will become law.

Even as Hamilton shed “tears of joy,” she was quick to point out the efforts of staffers at state fish and wildlife agencies — Meagan West at WDFW and Dr. Shaun Clements at ODFW.

“It was the scientists, Dr. Shaun Clements, that kept the conservation front and center,” said Hamilton.

We have reached out to WDFW and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission for comment and will fold those in when they arrive, but for his part, Clements said ODFW was “very relieved to have achieved this major milestone thanks to the support of the Northwest Senate delegation.”

“Passing this legislation to amend the MMPA is critical to ensuring we don’t have another repeat of Ballard Locks, which saw the extirpation of a wild steelhead run as a result of predation by a  handful of sea lions,” Clements said, in reference to Herschel et al’s 1980s’ feeding frenzy on Lake Washington watershed-bound winter-runs.

“Removing sea lions is not something we take lightly,” he added, “but it is unfortunately necessary as we are seeing some salmon, steelhead, and potentially sturgeon populations in the Columbia being pushed to the point of no return. We very much appreciate the efforts of the entire delegation, and particularly Senators Risch and Cantwell for recognizing the urgency and passing a bill that will allow both fish and sea lions to thrive.”

Hamilton also noted the importance of the diversity of the conservation community that came together, members such as the Wild Salmon Center.

“I’m convinced it made a lot of difference,” she said.

Sea lions aren’t nearly the only problem impacting returns of ESA-listed salmon and steelhead, Hamilton acknowledged, but this is good news for the fish that live in or return to the region’s most important river.

But there’s also work to be done elsewhere in the region. WDFW staffers are expected to brief the Fish and Wildlife Commission late next week on the impact sea lions as well as harbor seals are having in other Washington waters. Frustrations are boiling over and Puget Sound where more than 10 sea lions have been illegally shot and killed this fall.

Snake On WA-ID Border To Stay Open For Steelhead To WA-Licensed Anglers

With a federal fisheries permit in hand, a WDFW steelhead manager says Washington-licensed anglers will be able to continue to fish the Snake shared with Idaho after IDFG announced their season would shut down in early December due to a lawsuit threat.


“We’re not going to close because we have ESA coverage and a Fisheries Management and Evaluation Plan,” said Chris Donley, the state regional fisheries manager in Spokane, this morning.

That plan was approved back in 2011 by the National Marine Fisheries Service and WDFW’s had federal coverage since 2007.

Donley said that Idaho anglers who have a Washington-issued fishing license and steelhead catch card can fish the shared Snake under that authorization.

He was quick to add that WDFW did not view this as a chance to make money off of Gem State guides and anglers who won’t be allowed to fish the Clearwater, Salmon and Snake after Dec. 7.

That’s because Idaho’s FMEP for steelhead and Chinook fisheries lapsed in 2010 and NMFS has yet to issue a new one, though a draft is out for comment now and could be in place by early next year.

It’s that lack of coverage — rather than this year’s low return of A- and B-runs — that allowed six organizations, including the Wild Fish Conservancy of Duvall and The Conservation Angler of Portland, to threaten IDFG with a lawsuit last month.

The groups said that if the agency didn’t close steelheading in Gem State waters by Dec. 9 to prevent harm to Endangered Species Act-listed wild steelhead, they would take the state to federal court.

IDFG balked at a proposed settlement because of the conditions it would have imposed — bait and boat bans, barbless hook restrictions, and a Jan. 1 closure — and instead of spending money on court costs and lawyers fees, the Fish and Game Commission voted 6-0 to shut fishing down.

Challenging it in court might have cost $50,000, according to a state attorney general’s estimate included in a Lewiston Tribune article out this morning.

Idaho’s decision still drew scathing comments from guide Kyle Jones, who on Facebook vented his “utter frustration” with the state’s lack of a permit and wondered how he was going to make up $20,000 in lost winter revenue.

This is practically the same play that WFC et al made in 2014 in Puget Sound with the Chambers Creek early winter steelhead program.

In that case it was the other piece of the regulatory puzzle, the lack of a federally approved hatchery genetic management plan covering fisheries over another ESA stock, that was the target of opportunity.

With seemingly ever-increasing listings throughout Western salmon and steelhead country, the paperwork has piled up on NMFS’s collective desk, and between that and other work it’s assigned, progress approving FMEPs and HGMPs has been slow, leaving state fishery agencies vulnerable to lawsuits.

According to Lewiston Tribune outdoor reporter Eric Barker’s article, David Moskowitz of The Conservation Angler said closing the fishery would have benefits, Idaho’s rejection of the deal offered was more social than biological, and the threat of litigation was “meant to send a signal to everyone who is supposed to take care of these fish.”

For WDFW’s Donley, summer steelhead returning to the Inland Northwest have been all but handled with kid gloves from the time the fish entered the Columbia at Buoy 10, with reduced limits, night and thermal refuge closures — even full closures on the mainstem — all the way upstream.

Absent a conservation concern, he’s left wondering what the organizations’ aim is.

“How many more wild fish does this create when we have so many hydropower, habitat and hatchery issues to overcome?” Donley says.

IDFG Director Blasts Groups’ Steelhead Lawsuit Threat, Agency Details What Closure Means

Idaho steelhead managers are providing more details on today’s decision by the Fish and Game Commission to suspend fishing for the species as of midnight, Dec. 9.


The citizen panel made the move this morning under threat of a federal lawsuit from six organizations, three from out of state, who told IDFG in October they would sue over the agency’s lack of a federal authorization to hold fisheries over ESA-listed stocks unless the agency closed the season.

Officials say that an attempt to settle the dispute was unsuccessful after the groups asked for bait and boat bans, barbless hook restrictions, a prohibition on removing wild steelhead completely out of the water and closing steelhead fishing after Jan. 1.

IDFG claimed that deal would have made for “a disproportionate loss of angling opportunity for a particular user group, while preserving fishing opportunity for another.”

In a nearly 700-word letter to Idaho steelheaders, outgoing Director Virgil Moore explained that the commission didn’t want to go to U.S. District Court, lose because NMFS “dropped the ball on permit renewal” and waste sportsmen’s dollars to “pay bills for advocacy-group lawyers instead of conservation”

“Having been involved in steelhead management as a professional biologist, and being a steelhead fisherman for over 40 years, I’m well aware how important steelhead fishing is to Idaho anglers and local economies,” he wrote. “The loss of that opportunity, even temporarily, due to a lawsuit and unprocessed permit is truly regrettable.”


The permit in question ran out in 2010 but IDFG has been able to hold seasons in subsequent falls and winters “in coordination with federal managers,” according to an FAQ staffers put together.

For fans of Idaho steelheading, this means two things:

Per IDFG, fishing for steelhead will be closed in the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater, and it will be “illegal” to target them while seasons remain open on those rivers for whitefish, trout, sturgeon, etc.

As for the shared Snake, IDFG says “If Oregon and Washington continue their steelhead fisheries, anglers with a valid fishing license issued by Oregon or Washington may fish for steelhead consistent with the rules of those states.”

A WDFW official confirmed that.

“Short answer is we will keep fishing. Idaho anglers will be required to have a Washington or Oregon license if they are fishing for steelhead” on the shared Snake, said Chris Donley, the regional fisheries manager out of Spokane.

The six groups are using a page out of the same playbook some used in Washington in 2014, identifying an expired federal permit that provides cover for state fisheries over ESA-listed runs, then threatening a lawsuit.

In this case, they claim wild steelhead have been harmed during hatchery steelhead and Chinook fisheries.

Without the NMFS permit, the state is vulnerable to the suit from The Wild Fish Conservancy and Wild Salmon Rivers of Washington, The Conservation Angler of Portland, and Idaho Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater and Snake River Waterkeeper, all based in Idaho.

But in its FAQs, IDFG states, “Angling has minimal impacts to wild steelhead and the majority (~85%) of the 5,000 miles of wild steelhead spawning and rearing habitat is closed to fishing.”

The agency says that most impacts on the fish occur downriver and that catch-and-release of wild fish has a 3 percent mortality rate.

Even so, a C&R fishery on even clipped steelhead can’t be kept open because it would accrue impacts on wild fish without a permit to do so.

As for when that permit will arrive, IDFG says it will take “a few months” for the feds to take public comment and finalize biops and other documentation, but it “may be completed in time to reopen the spring steelhead fishery,” which runs into April.

Idaho To Close Steelhead Season In Early Dec. Due To Lawsuit Threat

Editor’s update 11:45 a.m., Nov. 14, 2018: Due to the threat of a lawsuit, Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission this morning has voted to suspend the state’s fall steelhead season after Dec. 7 and won’t open the spring season, which begins Jan. 1, 2019, until a fisheries plan is OKed by NMFS, per a report from Eric Barker at The Lewiston Tribune. He says the commission feared IDFG “would be on the hook for legal fees should the season continue and the groups follow through with their intent to sue.” Below is our earlier story on the issue.

Another state, another low-hanging-fruit lawsuit in the works by wild steelhead zealots against fishery agencies.

In 2014 it was WDFW and its Chambers Creek early winter program in Puget Sound; in 2018 it’s IDFG and its A- and B-runs.


The two agencies’ lack of federally approved management plans for hatchery operations and to hold fisheries more so than low runs leave them vulnerable to suits.

Washington’s was eventually settled out of court and a new plan is in place after several disrupted fishing seasons, but now Idaho is under threat.

In October, the Wild Fish Conservancy and Conservation Angler, along with Rivers United, Friends of the Clearwater and Snake River Water Keeper notified IDFG that they were going to take it to court in December if they didn’t close steelhead season by early in the month.

This year has seen a low run to the Snake River Basin and all three states dropped the limit to one already, but this lawsuit is very similar to the one WFC and others pursued against WDFW several years ago when it didn’t have a NMFS-OKed hatchery genetic management plan for the Skykomish and other winter rivers.

HGMPs provide the states with Endangered Species Act coverage, and at the time draft plans for multiple rivers and stocks were piling up on the federal fishery overseers’ collective desk following a raft of listings throughout the region.

In IDFG’s case, its expired all the way back in 2009, per Lewiston Morning Tribune outdoor reporter Eric Barker.

“The state submitted a new monitoring and evaluation plan the same year but officials at Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration let it sit idle while working on other pressing issues,” he writes in a story out overnight.

Also at risk are Idaho’s spring, summer and fall Chinook fisheries.

What to do about it is on the agenda of Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission meeting today.

“Department and federal agency review processes to date have found Idaho’s management frameworks for hatchery steelhead and chinook fisheries do not jeopardize wild steelhead populations,” reads a staff briefing out ahead of the confab. “The Department has monitoring and evaluation frameworks in place for hatchery steelhead and chinook fisheries, with annual reporting to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.”

Barker reports NMFS is working on a new draft plan and it’s out for public comment now.

Still, IDFG may have to close steelheading as of Dec. 7 to head off the risk of a lawsuit being filed on the 9th, Barker reports.

Stay tuned.

Idaho Fish And Game Boss To Retire After 8 Years At Helm, 42 In Wildlife Management


Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore on Nov. 6 announced he will retire from the department in Jan. 2019 after a 42-year career in fish and wildlife management. Moore has served as director since 2011, and intends to remain until his replacement has been selected by the Fish and Game Commission and is in place.


“It has been an honor to serve Idahoans, the governor and the Fish and Game commission as director the last eight years, and as a state employee for over 42 years,” Moore said. “Working together, Fish and Game and our wildlife resources are in excellent shape and ready to be handed off to new leadership.”

During his tenure as director, Moore oversaw the federal delisting and state management of wolves, and development of several new species management plans, including for elk and wolverine.  He also  played a key role in development of Governor Otter’s sage grouse plan that helped prevent federal listing, and Moore recently inked an important access agreement with Idaho Department of Lands to ensure continued sportsmen’s access while meeting the fiduciary responsibilities of endowment lands.

Moore’s career in wildlife management start after he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and education in 1973 from Northwest Missouri State University and a master’s degree in zoology from Idaho State University in 1977.

During his career in wildlife management, he also served as director of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, deputy director for Idaho Fish and Game, fisheries bureau chief for Idaho Fish and Game, and numerous other positions for the department’s fisheries and information and education bureaus. Moore also recently ended a one-year term as President of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Moore intends to remain in Idaho and spend time with his wife of 47 years, Becky Moore, and continue hunting, fishing and camping with their two adult children, five grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Moore’s position is open for applications, and information about the position can be found here. 

IDFG Looking For Info On Shooting Of Key Sow Grizzly

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is putting out word that it’s looking for information on a grizzly illegally shot in the far northern Panhandle two months ago.

Officials say the sow was killed near Spruce Lake, which is near where the borders of Idaho, Montana and British Columbia come together in northern Boundary County, over Labor Day Weekend.

“Grizzly bears are protected by both state and federal law and the loss of a breeding female is a major setback to the great bear’s recovery in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem,” a statement from the state agency says.

Anyone with information on the case is being asked to call Senior Conservation Officer Brian Johnson at (208) 267-4085.

Under-fire Idaho Game Commissioner Resigns At Governor’s Request

An Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner who came under fire in recent days after a distasteful photo of him with a dead “family of baboons” surfaced resigned today after the governor requested it.


“I have high expectations and standards for every appointee in state government,” said Governor Butch Otter in a press release out this afternoon. “Every member of my administration is expected to exercise good judgment. Commissioner (Blake) Fischer did not. Accordingly, I have accepted his resignation from the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.”

I caught wind of this story just as I was getting ready to leave for Deer Camp in North-central Washington and it festered in my mind all weekend.

Essentially, Fischer went on an African safari with his wife and started off by killing four baboons and posing with them, then moved on to a giraffe as well as more traditionally hunted animals.

After he shared pictures and details of the trip with 100 others, the Idaho Statesman caught wind and asked him about it.

According to a report, Fischer initially defended his actions, saying, “I didn’t do anything illegal. I didn’t do anything unethical. I didn’t do anything immoral.”

In his resignation letter Fischer states, “I recently made some poor judgments that resulted in sharing photos of a hunt in which I did not display an appropriate level of sportsmanship and respect for the animals I harvested.”

Last month I did a big article about how relatively few Washington fish and wildlife overseers hunt, so it bothers me to see an actual hunter on a game commission behave this way.

We all have done and will continue to do stupid things, but this is a self-inflicted wound that didn’t need to happen.

Fischer needed to go, and now he has.

2018 Idaho Fall Hunting Prospects ‘Good’ For Elk, Whitetails, Better For Muleys


Hunters can look forward to a good fall season in 2018, with similar elk and white-tailed deer populations as last year and likely more mule deer in many areas.

Despite a setback in 2017 following a hard winter that mostly affected mule deer, most of Idaho’s deer and elk herds and harvests have been at or near historic highs in recent years and well above long-term averages. Hunters should see similar numbers this fall.

Let’s look at some figures to back that up.

In 2017, hunters took 22,751 elk, and they have killed more than 20,000 elk annually since 2014. That’s a significant statistic because before 2014, elk harvests were well below 20,000 for seven years. (The 10-year average from 2008-17 is 18,865 elk).

The last extended streak of elk harvests above 20,000 was from 1988 to 1996, which were historic high harvests in Idaho that topped out at 28,000 in 1994.

Whitetails are on a similar trend. Hunters took 26,502 whitetails in 2017, another 26,354 in 2016 following an all-time record of 30,578 whitetails in 2015. The last four years have been the highest consecutive years on record.

But mule deer hunters have not been as fortunate. A combination of a tough winter in 2016-17 and cutbacks in antlerless tags to protect breeding age does dropped the harvest by nearly a third from 37,070 in 2016 to 25,496 last year, but hunters should expect to see a modest increase this fall.

Here’s a more detailed look.

sawtaooth_elk_cc vicschendel

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Vic Schendel


Idaho elk hunters are having some of the best hunting of all time, and there’s no reason the current streak can’t eventually compete with all-time highs based on recent harvests and trends.

Word has gotten out that Idaho’s elk hunting is on an upswing, and part of the attraction is a  combination of readily available tags sold over the counter and healthy elk populations. Elk tag sales have increased for the last five years and exceeded 100,000 annually since 2015. Prior to 2015, tag sales had not topped 100,000 in 16 years. Nonresident tags sold out in 2017, and they are selling faster this year, and will likely sell out again.

The 2017 elk harvest ranked second-highest in the last decade with 1,242 more elk than in 2016. It also ranks sixth all-time, and it’s 30 percent above the 50-year average elk harvest.

Here’s how the 2017 elk harvest breaks down:

  • Total: 22,751
  • Overall success rate: 24.4 percent
  • Bulls: 11,650
  • Cows: 11,101
  • Elk taken during general hunts: 13,277 (18.4 success rate)
  • Elk taken during controlled hunts: 9,473 (44.6 percent success rate)

Elk populations remain strong because they’re less susceptible to winter kill than deer, so they can continue to rebuild herds from year to year. Last winter, statewide calf survival was 66 percent, and the long term average 55 to 65 percent.

While Idaho is reliving some of its glory years for elk hunting, the location of the animals has changed. During record harvests in the 1990s, Central Idaho’s backcountry and wilderness areas were major contributors. They are less so these days, but other areas have picked up the slack.

There’s been a shift in populations from the wilderness and backcountry areas toward the interface between forest lands, agriculture and rural areas.

Harvest results show this. The Panhandle is currently the top elk zone in the state, and the top 10 zones include the Weiser River, Pioneer, Boise River, McCall, Smokey/Bennett and Salmon zones, all of which have major highways running through them.

Those top-producing zones provide accessible opportunities for many hunters, but also have unique challenges because there’s often a mix of public and private lands where the elk roam.

Elk herds are doing so well in some zones, such as the Weiser River and Pioneer zones, that those herds are over objectives and Fish and Game has increased cow hunting opportunities to thin the herds.

For new elk hunters, or experienced hunters looking for a new place to hunt, Idaho’s elk populations are likely to remain healthy in the foreseeable future, so now’s a good time to learn a zone where there are abundant herds.

Idaho offers a variety of over-the-counter tags for elk hunters. Out of 28 elk hunting zones, only two are limited to only controlled hunts, although many zones have limits on the number of tags available.

Hunters should research each zone and may want to look beyond the general, any-weapon seasons to find additional opportunity. Many archery and muzzleloader hunts provide antlerless, or either-sex hunting, and also options for early and late-season hunts.

top ten elk_graph

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Glenna Gomez, Idaho Fish and Game

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Roger Phillips/Idaho Fish and Game

Mule deer

Mule deer hunting had also been on an upswing in recent years, but a tough winter across most of southern Idaho in 2016-17 winter dropped the population, which also contributed to a drop of 11,574 in the mule deer harvest between 2016 and 2017.

But a few things should be noted. The drop in doe harvest accounted for 22 percent of the difference between those two years, which was intentional to protect the does that will hopefully continue rebuilding the herds in coming years. Most of those protections remain in place.

Deer tag sales in 2017 fell by 7,323 tags compared with 2016. If those tags had been purchased, and those hunters matched the 2017 success rate for mule deer, it would have added another 2,123 deer to the harvest. That’s assuming they were all mule deer hunters because success rates for whitetails is significantly higher (see below for details about whitetails).

While the mule deer harvest dropped by 31 percent between 2016 and 2017, the success rate between the two years only dropped by 8 percentage points, 37 percent success in 2016 vs. 29 percent in 2017.

Here’s the breakdown of the 2017 mule deer harvest:

  • Total: 25,946
  • Overall success rate: 29 percent
  • Bucks: 20,275
  • Does: 5,221
  • Mule deer taken during general hunts: 18,588 (24.5 percent success rate)
  • Mule deer taken during controlled hunts: 6,909 (56.4 percent success rate)

Mule deer herds had been growing leading up to 2017 with five consecutive years of above-average winter fawn survival until the 2016-17 winter, which had only 30-percent fawn survival (based on radio-collared fawns) and was the second-lowest winter survival since fawn monitoring started in 1998.

Fawn survival vastly improved this year. The 2017-18 winter survival nearly doubled from the previous winter’s 30 percent survival to 57 percent last winter, which is right at the long-term average and should mean more young bucks in the herds during fall.

That’s the age group that saw a sharp drop in the harvest, accounting for 10,171 mule deer in 2016, but only 6,462 in the 2017 harvest.

Mule deer fawn survival rates last winter were also unusually uniform in the seven monitoring areas spread across the state with the lowest coming in at 45 percent and the highest at 66 percent.

Returning to an average fawn survival rate could easily bump the 2018 harvest by several thousand young bucks, however, there will still be fewer 2.5-year old bucks, many of which perished in the 2016-17 winter or were taken by hunters in 2017.

The Southeast Region and the McCall/Weiser areas were hardest hit during the severe 2016-17 winter, while other areas had closer-to-normal fawn survival, but still below average. Areas that weren’t hit as hard are likely to recover more quickly.


Creative Commons Licence
Glenna Gomez, Idaho Fish and Game
whitetail buck

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Roger Phillips/Idaho Fish and Game

White-tailed deer

Whitetails have long-been a favorite quarry for hunters in the Panhandle and Clearwater regions, where they account for the vast majority of the harvest. But whitetails have also taken on statewide significance in recent years because their harvest has increased and closely matched mule deer, which has traditionally far outnumbered whitetails in the harvest.

Part of the reason for the shift is stable and abundant whitetail herds, lots of general season hunting opportunities that include long seasons and liberal regulations with either-sex hunting. Those factors also contribute to a higher success rate than mule deer.

Let’s breakdown the 2017 whitetail harvest:

  • Total: 26,502
  • Success rate: 43.9 percent
  • Bucks: 15,895
  • Does: 10,607
  • Bucks five points or larger (on one antler): 3,384
  • General season harvest: 23,312 (42.7 percent success rate)
  • Controlled hunt harvest: 3,189 (54.6 percent success rate)

Unlike mule deer, Fish and Game does not radio collar whitetail fawns and does each winter and monitor their survival, or do other annual population surveys for whitetails. Biologists rely on other data to judge the health of the population, including harvest data.

Harvest has been over 26,000 for the last four years, and the number of five-points in the harvest has been consistent since 2007.

Whitetail hunting is meeting nearly all of the department’s objectives for the number of hunters, hunter days, buck harvest, and percentage of five points. The only exceptions are the Selway/Middle Fork areas are below objectives for hunt numbers and days, and southern Idaho is below objective for five-points, but southern Idaho is not considered a major focus for whitetail hunters.

Idaho has not seen any significant outbreaks of whitetail diseases in recent years, and now outbreaks have been detected this year.

All signs point to another good year for whitetail hunters with lots of opportunity and the chance to get a bigger buck for those who put in the time and effort.

Whitetail hunters should be aware of rule changes in Unit 10A in 2018, which includes a shortened season (Oct. 10 through Nov. 20), and hunters can not use a second deer tag in that unit.


Creative Commons Licence
Glenna Gomez, Idaho Fish and Game


To learn more about harvest statistics, places to hunt, rules and more information, see the Hunt Planner.