We bagged just 24,318 bucks and does during all general and permit seasons, a new low mark this century, and more than 5,100 animals fewer than 2020 due in no small part to huge disease outbreaks in key hunting regions last summer and fall.
The dropoff was most notable throughout the Palouse and Northeast Washington, where bluetongue and epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, ravaged whitetail and even mule deer herds, with harvest in the rolling loess hills and nearby environs dropping by almost 2,300 deer last year and just under 850 in the latter region’s wooded valleys and mountains.
Going into October’s rifle season, WDFW was warning hunters that the outbreak appeared to be bigger than 2015’s large event and it could impact their success, and it’s likely some sportsmen just decided not to hunt last fall in response, “self-limiting” themselves in the name of conserving ailing herds, or tried their luck elsewhere. Agency stats show modern firearm hunter numbers dropped by more than 2,000 in units from Spokane to the Snake River Breaks during the general season, and over 1,300 in the state’s northeastern corner.
Statewide, there were 9,347 fewer general season hunters than in 2020, 98,239 vs. 107,586.
Perhaps the sharpest harvest declines were seen in Northwest Washington’s San Juans Islands, where adenovirus ripped through the blacktail population. Overall harvest on Orcas shrank from 147 deer in 2020 to 11 last year, while on San Juan itself it went from 138 down to 22, and Lopez dropped from 116 to 50.
To be clear, the islands are nowhere close to being the sort of deer hunting draw of the Colville, Kettle Falls and Newport areas, where radio-collar data also gave state managers an idea about the scope of the outbreak, with roughly 25 percent of whitetails dying off, WDFW estimated. Mule deer losses there and elsewhere ran around 15 percent, according to the agency.
Antlerless harvest has been all but nonexistent in most of Northeast Washington since 2019 and will be again this fall as wildlife managers try to rebuild the whitetail herd and hope that we don’t see another hot, dry summer, the kind that dries up waterholes and makes the two disease vectors more deadly. There will also be over 400 fewer special permits in the Palouse, 385 less in Southeast Washington’s Blue Mountains and 277 in Okanogan and Chelan Counties, all of which also saw disease losses.
EHD, bluetongue and other maladies are hardly the only things affecting deer populations, and thus hunter harvest. Other impacts include habitat loss and changing land uses, wildfires, winter severity, past harvests and predation. Results from ongoing predator studies in wolf-rich Okanogan and Northeast Washington should flesh out that last element more, but it’s notable that cougars were found to be a very strong threat to the at-risk Blue Mountains elk herd.
It wasn’t all bad news for deer hunters. General rifle harvest was up slightly overall in Columbia Gorge, Mt. Rainier and South Coast districts, and a number of units scattered across the state also saw higher takes, increased hunter success rates and fewer days per kill, or at least didn’t fall far from 2020 figures.
The 2021 general season harvest was 22,881 deer, with 18,530 of those taken by modern firearm hunters, 3,157 by bowhunters and 1,194 by muzzleloaders, who saw 24, 22 and 23 percent success rates, respectively.
Some 135,506 deer tags were purchased for 2021’s hunts, with 98,239 hunters actually taking the field, according to WDFW.
All the figures in the last two paragraphs were below 2020 levels – and miles off 2015’s best-in-a-decade marks of 35,407 general-season deer, including 27,380 taken by rifle hunters, 5,672 by bowmen and 2,355 by smokepolers who enjoyed 30.6, 28.4 and 31.3 percent success rates, respectively. Nearly 145,700 deer tags were purchased that year, with 116,798 hunters heading to the woods and wide-opens of Washington.
Previously 2017 was this millennium’s worst deer season, when the overall harvest was 26,537, with 24,360 of those taken during general seasons.
As for elk, general and special permit harvest was down by 99 animals in 2021 and notably, 5,159 fewer hunters went in search of wapiti last year compared to the previous season, 51,422 vs. 56,581. However, it’s probable this fall’s elk harvest will rise, thanks to the addition of over 1,500 antlerless permits for the Yakima Herd.
And black bear harvest declined as well, from 2,092 during the fall general and spring special hunt seasons in 2020 to 1,686 in 2021, even as overall hunter numbers essentially held steady. It will be interesting to see the 2022 bruin harvest figures, which will only include the fall hunt as the spring season was kiboshed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this year.