Big Game Roundup
by Ed Mitchell
As deer and elk hunting draws to a close for another year, our predictions look fairly reliable.
Fish and Game Department figures will not be ready for release until researchers do their surveys after all the seasons are finally closed. Then the telephone work and numbers compilations will take several months.
For the moment, gathering a general impression based on check stations and field observations by Fish and Game officers is the best we can do. In a recent conversation with Idaho's top big game managers, the word was the hunters did well on both elk and deer.
Deer hunters seem to be happier this fall than they have been for several years after the winter of 1992-93 knocked herds back over most of southern Idaho, particularly in the southeast where the biggest-antlered bucks are found. Hunters are seeing good numbers again everywhere while bucks have had enough time to gain some size and classy headgear since the last bad winter.
One of Fish and Game's top biologists, Jim Unsworth, has been doing some fascinating research on mule deer mortality over the last several years. When he is finished and the report done, it might end some of the arguments over what really affects the number of deer in the hills.
So far, the research is backing what biologists have always known. That is, in the broadest interpretation, hunters take some deer, predators take some deer but it is ol' Ma Nature that really controls the ups and downs in deer herds. A hard winter takes out the rut-tired bucks that have no fat reserves, then it takes the fawns of the year, leaving 90 percent of the does even in times as tough as 1992-93.
A brilliant, if brutal, survival strategy has evolved in deer. Deer will survive and prosper despite hunters and predators so long as we give them the habitat they need.
This is not a new story but Unsworth's hard-core field work with radio-collared animals traced from the time they are captured until they meet their demise will provide solid evidence. At least it may answer some of the nonsense theories so we can get down to serious management.
The immediate message is that Idaho's deer herds are on the increase again, hunters are seeing nice bucks and enough of the big boys were taken this fall to encourage avid deer hunters. Forage is in good to excellent condition in most places, so, barring an unusually harsh winter, next season ought to be one for the books.
Anecdotal evidence on the elk hunts indicate hunters are generally seeing mature bulls and success is about the same as last year, which set the record.
The early hunts did start a little slow, as we expected, because of summer-like weather. Animals stayed high and scattered through all of September and most of October. Hunting success picked up in north Idaho when the first storms came in, improving later in southern Idaho when weather finally began to happen.
Personal anecdote: the elk I plan to see behind the house did not show until the last week of my season and I was beginning to be concerned. One more storm did the trick just five days before the end of the hunt and I was able let our winter elk supply down gently on my favorite hill. It was good to seem them back.