Photo by Ann McCreary
Two bucks who survived the general deer hunt faced off in a field near Twisp this week, probably competing in their quest for the attention of does.

Poor weather may have discouraged hunters, WDFW says

By Ann McCreary

Preliminary data from this year’s general deer hunt in the Methow Valley indicate that the success rate for hunters was probably lower than last year.

“It was slow,” said Scott Fitkin, wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). That conclusion is based on hunters who checked in with their deer at WDFW’s check station at the Winthrop Barn.

“This year we checked 131 hunters with 15 deer over the two weekends. Last year we checked 175 hunters with 45 deer,” Fitkin said.

The check station is a small sample of hunters, but is an indicator of the general trend, Fitkin said. Actual harvest numbers won’t be known until hunters report back to WDFW by the end of January, he said. “The indication of success is going to be down this year, the question is how much,” he said.

A few factors may have contributed to lower numbers at the check station this year. One may have been the harsh weather during the second weekend of hunting season, with heavy rain on Saturday and snow that temporarily closed the North Cascades Highway Sunday morning.

The cold, wet weather and highway closure may have discouraged hunters from stopping at the WDFW check station, which is voluntary. “People may have just wanted to get home,” Fitkin said.

He said the check station saw the same number of hunters during the first weekend this year as last year, but the numbers were lower on the second weekend.

Comparatively hard winters and higher-than-normal fawn mortality during the past two years may also contribute to a reduction in the number of deer taken by hunters this season, Fitkin said. Fawn mortality in the winter of 2015 – 2016 was 67 percent, compared to a 10-year average mortality rate of 53 percent, he said.

That means there were fewer 2 ½-year-old bucks available this fall. That’s about the age bucks become legal to hunt, Fitkin said. Some bucks mature earlier, but last winter’s fawn mortality rates — 61 percent — were also higher than average, he said.

Mortality rates are also linked to the damage to winter grazing lands caused by the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014 and, to a lesser extent, the Twisp River Fire of 2015, Fitkin said. “That’s contributing to the higher than average winter fawn mortality. It’s going to take years to get that shrub component back to where it was. We’re still feeling the effects of the fires,” he said.

To reduce the grazing pressure on the damaged winter range after the Carlton Complex, a higher number of doe permits were issued in the Methow Valley in the fall of 2014. The number of antlerless deer permits “slowly tapered off” in 2015 and 2016, and this year those permits for the Methow Valley were “almost back to pre-fire levels,” Fitkin said.

The general deer season in WDFW’s District 6, which includes the Okanogan and Methow valleys, resulted in 2,717 deer taken in 2016 and 3,603 in 2015, according to WDFW reports. The higher numbers in 2015 may have been partly a result of a very dry summer and a hunting season that was later in October than usual, both of which may have made more deer available to hunters. “Up high everything was dried out, so the deer moved out of the high country earlier than usual … which made them more vulnerable,” Fitkin said.

People with permits for the late season hunt, which runs Nov. 1 – 20, may benefit from the apparently lower general season success rate, and from the early season mountain snow that will bring deer down to their winter range, Fitkin said.

“The fact that the general season was kind of slow, and with heavy snow in the high country, the prospect for late season permit holders are going to be good. They will see some nice bucks on the winter range, ” he said.