Clearwater herds are mostly treading water

·3 min read

Oct. 8—In general, Idaho big game hunters can expect populations of elk and deer to be little changed from a year ago.

Looked at from a statewide basis, the state's elk and whitetail deer herds are doing well while mule deer numbers, similar to those in other Western states, have seen better days.

Last year, hunters in Idaho harvested 22,776 elk, 24,809 mule deer and 24,859 whitetail deer, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Whitetail hunters enjoyed a 44 percent success rate. Elk hunters had a 23 percent success rate, and 28 percent of mule deer hunters were successful.

But drill down a little bit and hunters will find more variation. For example, elk herds in the state's backcountry units, such as the Lolo and Selway zones in the Clearwater Region, are below objectives. Whitetail herds in the Clearwater Region are generally in decent shape, but an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in some of the lower elevation areas has reduced local numbers of deer. (See related story, Page 6.)

"We have had some fairly mild winters, and prior to the EHD outbreak I would have said things are rolling along pretty good," said Clay Hickey, wildlife manager for the Clearwater Region at Lewiston.

The weather was mild the last few winters, which generally translates to higher survival for elk and deer. However, it was drier than normal, and the drought continued into the spring. It stayed dry during a summer that saw lengthy hot spells.

Hickey said while that is not likely to affect elk and deer numbers this year, it may in the future.

"If we get an epic winter, (animals) are not going to go into it as fat, and that is a concern, but there is not a lot we can do about that," he said. "Old animals and small animals are going to have a harder time in a normal winter, and if it's a bad winter, we are going to tip over more animals."

He said the region's elk herds are little changed from where they have been in the recent past. The animals are doing better in places like the Palouse and Hells Canyon zones. The Palouse Zone is the only uncapped zone in the region, and the Hells Canyon Zone is limited to controlled hunts only.

The Lolo, Selway, Elk City and Dworshak zones are not meeting the state's elk population objectives. Because of that the zones are capped, meaning the sale of all or some types of general season tags is limited.

Hickey said most deer habitat is in good shape, but there are some factors to note. In addition to places that were harder hit by EHD, fires may have shuffled animals in certain locations.

"Some places, like Unit 11, had a bunch of habitat burn up," he said.

In some cases, he said, the animals are in unburned patches within the footprint of burns, such as the Snake River Complex that covered much of the Craig Mountain Wildlife Area. But some animals have likely moved to adjacent unburned areas.

Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.