Though seasons are open, many northwestern hunters can expect tough hunting in 2023
With seasons open across most of the Northwest, there’s no shortage of hunters out in the field. While there’s not much rut action to report as bucks are still hanging out in groups, hunters are anxiously awaiting rut behavior to pick up in the coming weeks. However, before hunters think about the rut, it’s important to take a look back.
Several Northwest states faced brutal winter conditions last year. The sustained frigid temperatures and heavy snowpack resulted in a substantial winter kill in many places. In some areas, the biggest challenge this season might be laying eyes on one of the few surviving bucks.
Wyoming was hit the absolute hardest. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department proactively adjusted its license numbers in response to an extremely high die-off of antelope and mule deer. The department released fewer antelope licenses and limited-quota mule deer licenses. An overwhelming majority are reserved for Wyoming residents.
Southwest Wyoming saw the most winter kill. State biologists estimate that tens of thousands of mule deer and pronghorn died. In the Wyoming Range mule deer herd, University of Wyoming researchers say 70% of collared does, 60% of collared bucks and 100% of collared fawns died. This is on top of already lower numbers after drought hit the herd hard in recent years.
The department says herd recovery will depend on this upcoming winter’s conditions, not hunting pressure, but some hunters are still choosing to set aside their deer tags and pursue more abundant species. The “Let a Deer Walk” raffle, organized by some local hunters, encouraged fellow hunters to turn in Wyoming deer tags for a chance to win a prize donated by local businesses.
Last year’s brutal winter conditions extended through Wyoming and into the east side of Idaho. In its 2023 Deer & Hunting Outlook, Idaho Fish and Game says this about eastern Idaho: “No sugar-coating this one. Deer hunting there is going to be challenging.” It sounds like hunters might want to look elsewhere in the state.
The agency is more optimistic statewide. Biologists predict deer and elk hunting should be similar to 2022, with herds remaining healthy despite a few setbacks. Last year’s statewide whitetail harvest was about 21% below the 10-year average. Hunter success rates were 29% for muleys and 38% for whitetails. Most of Idaho’s whitetail harvest takes place in the Panhandle and Clearwater regions, which have seen a drop in whitetail numbers. Whitetails in the Clearwater are still recovering from a 2021 outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease but biologists are optimistic that numbers are up this year.
Herd health is a mixed bag in Montana. Some areas of the state also experienced a tough winter for wildlife with early snow and hard-pack conditions throughout most of the season. However, other areas enjoyed mild conditions. Montana Fish Wildlife & Park’s 2023 Big Game Hunting Forecast is a great resource for specific area information before planning a hunt.
With a large number of western hunters pursuing rutting elk and antelope over the past few weeks, it leaves interesting opportunities open for bowhunters looking for deer. In many areas, there’s minimal pressure, especially for whitetails, on public land.
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