Deer Forecast

Deer hunters can expect a fair to good season this fall, although long-term effects from the persistent drought will be apparent throughout much of the region. Because of poor fawn survival in the hardest-hit areas, deer will be slow to increase their numbers. On a brighter note, substantial spring rains are bringing relief to the parched range in many areas.

ARIZONA

Hunters shouldn't expect a great deer season this year, thanks to the drought. According to Brian Wakeling, big-game management supervisor for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, the winter wasn't bad. A fair amount of moisture this spring improved plant growth, helping fawn recruitment. However, the drought has prompted wildlife officials to offer the lowest number of deer tags in modern times. Wakeling says more spring rains could help turn that scenario around in the future and is cautiously optimistic. In the famous Kaibab region, known for trophy mule deer, biologists are intentionally keeping deer numbers down to allow habitat to recover.

As in many other Western states, critical winter ranges were hit hard by the drought. Top units should be 13A, 13B, 12A (east and west) and 12B, but your chances of drawing tags are low because of intense competition. In the southern region, look for better drawing odds in units 29, 30, 30A and 30B. Some units in the southwest are undersubscribed because of private land and difficult access.

Some of the best Coues deer hunting is south of Tucson. Hunts during the rut are toughest to draw. Seasons run from late October to late December.

CALIFORNIA

Expect an average year in California. According to Craig Stowers, deer program coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Game, the upcoming season won't be much different from that of other years. However, he says that forest fires burned more than 1 million acres of land in the southern region over the last two years, and improved habitat should soon emerge. Winter mortality was negligible, with no serious problems. Regarding the drought that has affected other states, Stowers says that many areas in California always suffer from drought.

The success of the deer season is directly related to weather, says Stowers. If there are early snows with cold temperatures, deer will leave the high country for places where hunters can get to them. He says the B zones could have outstanding hunting if the weather cooperates.

Deer tags are available in a draw, but many units are undersubscribed, chiefly in the A, B and D zones. Not so in the X zones, where hunters try for quality units that offer excellent opportunity. These are in the northeast and the Sierras, where hunters who draw tags take big bucks every year.

COLORADO

Look for a good season here, with hunter success predicted at around 45 percent or better. According to Tyler Baskfield, information officer for the Colorado Division of Wildlife Resources, the only area of concern is the San Luis Valley, which has had five years of drought. As a result, deer numbers haven't rebounded as they have elsewhere, with lower buck-to-doe ratios. On the other hand, the southwestern units are doing very well, with plenty of precipitation, which is essential for quality ranges. Overall, Colorado supports 570,000 deer. Most mule deer live in the western mountains, though some big bucks dwell in the eastern plains. Whitetails inhabit much of the plains units.

In 2002 hunters took 36,000 deer. Last year, 88,000 hunters killed 37,600 deer. Baskfield says that number could be exceeded this year. The top mule-deer units for quality bucks and high hunter success are in the northwest region, all of them limited-entry units requiring preference points. Outstanding public whitetail hunting for big bucks is available along the Platte River on state wildlife areas, such as units 90, 91, 92, 95 and 96, and unit 103 near Bonny Reservoir.

All deer tags are distributed in a lottery; in the top units, hunters with the highest number of preference points are apt to draw. Deer seasons are combined with those for elk and run October 16-24, October 30 to November 5 and November 6-10. There are some special late hunts that run to January 31. There will likely be leftover tags after the draw. They went on sale in August.

IDAHO

Whitetails are in good shape in Idaho, and a good season is expected this year. According to Brad Compton, big-game manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, mule deer suffered losses in the eastern units but are increasing slowly in the south-central region. On a bright note, mule deer in the west-central region from Boise to Twin Falls are at some of their highest population levels in years. Many trophy hunters look to southeastern Idaho for big bucks, but deer are still recovering from the severe 2001-02 winter. Compton says that a wet spring this year will contribute to a better recovery. Some of the top mule-deer trophy units offer tags in a lottery, namely unit 11 near Lewiston and unit 45 near Twin Falls. Hunters who draw have a chance at a superb buck.

Whitetail hunters who try for deer in the thick forests of the Panhandle may take the buck of their dreams. Units 1 and 4 produce monsters, but this is a tough hunt. Look for the big boys north of Coeur d'Alene and around Priest and Pend Oreille lakes.

Hunters should be aware of new regulations: All vehicle travel on public land (state, BLM and Forest Service) must now be confined to existing roads. No off-road travel is allowed.

Nonresident tags are issued either on a first-come, first-served basis or through a limited-entry draw, depending on the unit or region.

MONTANA

Deer hunters can expect a good season, even though some areas were buried in heavy early snow, which began around Christmas. The biggest impact was in the Bridger Mountain area in Region 3. According to Gary Hammond of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, fawns were hit hardest. In Region 6, heavy snows that fell in this part of north-central Montana affected some mule deer and whitetails, but losses weren't huge. Hammond says deer had been recovering from the declines of the early 1990s, but there may be some drops in recruitment where winter was most severe.

Overall, Hammond is optimistic, even though the winter was harsh, with continued drought. Heavy rain in the spring helped turn things around, and he says the recent big fires in Montana will have a positive impact, spurring new plant growth in the region over the next 5 to 10 years.

Hammond says that Region 1 in the northwest suffered a serious decline following the winter of 1996-97, but whitetails are rebounding nicely and he expects some good bucks to be taken this fall. The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge should provide good mule deer hunting. Federal biologists have established a three-week season, starting October 24. Elsewhere in the state, the season generally runs five weeks.

NEVADA

Biologists in Nevada expect a fair hunt this fall. According to Chris Healy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, snowpack was good early on in the winter, but precipitation didn't continue into the spring as wildlife officials had hoped. Western and northwestern deer herds showed much higher fawn ratios than elsewhere in the state, while herds in central and east-central Nevada had much lower ratios.

This trend of poor recruitment has been a problem for many years, and Nevada's deer herd counts are far lower than they were in the 1980s. On a happier note, many units still continue to produce good bucks. Nonresident hunters performed well last year, with a harvest rate of 54 percent for rifle hunters.

All of Nevada's deer tags are issued in a draw. Units 101-108 (early season) have 153 nonresident tags. Units 71-79 and 111-113 (both early) are assigned 57 nonresident tags per group. Some of the top units are those with late-season hunting, but only a handful of tags are issued. Look to units 261-268 (late), with a season running November 27 to December 5, and units 15 and 21, with seasons running December 4-26.

NEW MEXICO

Wildlife officials don't expect any changes in the upcoming season, indicating it should be the same as last year. Barry Hill, deer program manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, says the state is still in a long-term drought, which hurts habitat. Consequently, deer numbers aren't what biologists would like them to be. The southern areas have been hit hardest by the drought. Besides mule deer, New Mexico also has Coues deer in the southwest and Texas whitetails along its eastern border.

Hill says the best mule-deer hunting should be in the north-central and northwestern areas. There is plenty of public land there on national forests and BLM property, offering great hunting opportunities. He also says regulations such as season dates and quotas will remain the same this season but may change next year. It's possible that the entire state could be limited entry, which is what other Western states have done recently.

Deer seasons in New Mexico are "stratified" and are shorter than most in the West, with two-, three-, five- and seven-day hunts, depending on the unit. Rifle seasons typically run from late September to late November.

OREGON

Hunters shouldn't expect any profound changes in the upcoming deer season, although blacktail deer are still experiencing a decline. These deer, one of three subspecies in Oregon (whitetails and mule deer being the others), live in the coastal areas west of the Cascade Mountain Range. Tom Thornton, game program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says habitat loss is a problem, especially on public land where there is less logging, resulting in poor forage. Deer also are afflicted with a parasite that causes severe hair loss, often resulting in death. A louse introduced from a foreign country might be the cause.

Thornton says that mule deer fared well in the east, though there were some losses in the northeast and on the eastern face of the Cascades due to a winter that was harder than normal. Overall, there have been no important changes in the regulations, though a break in the long-term drought will be an improvement for deer around the state, including whitetails that dwell in the northeast.

Seasons vary by the unit and region this year, but basically will be October 2 to November 5 for blacktails and October 2-13 for mule deer and whitetails. There are different seasons in the Cascade Mountains.

UTAH

Overall, Utah's deer season won't vary much from years past, though heavy snows in the area from Salt Lake City to Brigham City have caused winter mortality. According to Jim Karpowitz of the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, hunters should see fair to excellent hunting around the state. The winter was mild, other than in the northern region, but like other Western states, Utah is suffering from a drought.

Over recent years, Utah officials have eliminated some general-season hunts and put them in a limited-entry category, with tags drawn in a lottery. These include the legendary Paunsaugant and Elk Ridge units, but there also are outstanding hunts in the Book Cliffs and Henry Mountains units. In fact, deer hunting in the Book Cliffs was shut down some years ago because of a lack of deer. Obviously, Utah's management programs are working.

Typically, the southern, central and southeastern regions sell out their tags first, but normally there are tags available in the northern and northeastern regions for those who don't get their tags early. As usual, Utah will have a nine-day season, beginning on October 23.

WASHINGTON

There should be an average deer hunt in Washington this fall, since the fourth mild winter in a row has allowed more deer to survive. Jerry Nelson, deer and elk section manager, says mule deer numbers have been slowly building since 1996-97 and are about as good as they can get. He says the habitat is occupied, but habitat is slowly disappearing as civilization encroaches. Additionally, timber practices, which have been so important in producing crucial deer habitat, are inadequate, keeping deer herds at lower levels than desired.

Like Oregon, this state has three deer subspecies. Nelson says that blacktails, which live west of the Cascade Mountains to the coast, have the most stable populations but are suffering from the hair loss experienced by Oregon's blacktails. Research is being done, but there are no solutions or predictions for the future. Nelson says this could be an early indicator of a profound epidemic that might come, but no one is certain.

As is true of mule deer herds, whitetail herds are apt to fluctuate because of weather, but good numbers of whitetails still inhabit the northeast, chiefly in Stevens, Spokane and Pend Oreille counties. Mule deer hunters can expect to do best in Okanogan, Chelan and Douglas counties.

WYOMING

Hunters looking for a trophy buck in Wyoming's legendary southwestern units will find fewer tags available. According to Al Langston, information officer for the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, the region suffered a hard winter, requiring some cutbacks and shortened seasons. Langston says the winter was actually more like a "regular" winter, one that hasn't been seen lately because of the recent string of drought years. He also says that even though deer numbers are down, there still are some trophy bucks roaming the mountains in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Overall, the drought continues to suppress deer numbers, with the eastern areas looking grim. The Medicine Bow area has fair deer numbers, but populations are below normal. The Black Hills country in the northeast is holding its own, with decent numbers of whitetails and mule deer.

Nonresidents must apply for a tag in a lottery and can apply for one region only. Some regions are often undersubscribed, primarily because they don't produce consistent trophy bucks and many of the units are private land. The top units are in the southwest, and they historically offer the toughest drawing odds.

WESTERN ROAD TRIP If you want a chance at a mega mule deer in a place where you can hunt on your own without hiring an outfitter, consider an early hunt in southwestern Wyoming, where seasons open September 15. Many units are within the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but one of the best spots is in the Grey's River drainage. There are a number of roads that allow access and plenty of places to camp. There's also a network of trails used by outfitters and foot hunters. Bucks will be in the high elevations in mid-September, typically in bachelor groups. Look for them in places away from trails. Bring a fishing rod, since you can easily catch a mess of brook trout, and don't be surprised if you see very few hunters. These are limited-entry units requiring a draw. Plan now for a hunt next year.

CONTACT INFO

ARIZONA: 602-942-3000; www.gf.state.az.us CALIFORNIA: 916-227-2245; www.dfg.ca.gov COLORADO: 303-297-1192; http://wildlife.state.co.us IDAHO: 208-334-3700; http://fishandgame.idaho.gov MONTANA: 406-444-2535; www.fwp.state.mt.us NEVADA: 775-688-1500; http://ndow.org NEW MEXICO: 505-476-8000; www.wildlife.state.nm.us OREGON: 503-947-6000; www.dfw.state.or.us UTAH: 801-538-4700; www.wildlife.utah.gov WASHINGTON: 360-902-2200; http://wdfw.wa.gov WYOMING: 307-777-4600; http://gf.state.wy.us

For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/destinations