Will the new four-point-minimum rebuild whitetail numbers in two Northeast Washington hunting units?
Will fewer deer hunters head there this fall?
Will more now-illegal three-point bucks be left to rot in the brush?
Will hunters one day forget that it was the Fish & Wildlife Commission — spurred on by a group of local sportsmen and politicians — that passed the new restrictions and instead blame WDFW biologists who did not support the change?
Well, you can count on that last one, but the rest remain to be seen.
Last Friday, five of the seven members on the citizen panel found local residents’ arguments in favor of the change “compelling” enough to approve the new restrictions for a pair of the state’s “whitetail factories,” the Huckleberry and 49 Degrees North units, starting this fall.
“After reviewing the broad range of public input received over the past nine months, the commission found the input received from area residents and local governments favoring this proposal to be compelling in making this decision,” said chairwoman Miranda Wecker in a press release this afternoon.
It will be for the columnists and arm-chair biologists to come up with snarky counter arguments — I’ve got to attend to the May issue — but as it stands, the proposal stems from genuine local concerns over the resource: the Northeast’s whitetail herd is not what it once was.
WDFW staffers say the decline stems from long-term habitat changes — namely decreased logging and agricultural production — horrible back-to-back winters, and big antlerless deer harvests earlier this decade.
The difference in opinions is how to bring the herd back.
“I just don’t think the science is there, and it’s not a conservation issue,” said Commissioner Brad Smith of Bellingham on why he was one of two votes against the new restriction.
He worries that it reduces the opportunities for young and new sportsmen to get into hunting in Washington.
During the 2009 season, the latest year harvest stats were available by antler type, Huckleberry and 49 Degrees North yielded 222 spikes, 281 forked horns and 405 three-points — 33, 36 and 25 percent of all the whitetails of those sizes killed during general season hunts in the state that year.
The restriction should allow more of those young bucks to become four-points — some can reach that size in as little as two and a half years — but the fear is that in this thicker, brushier country, it’ll be tougher to count antler points, and some undersized animals will end up being shot and left.
That still happens on occasion with Eastern Washington mule deer bucks, governed under a three-point minimum since 1997.
That change also came out of the Fish & Wildlife Commission and wasn’t necessarily supported by WDFW biologists.
It came at a time of worry about mule deer health across the West, a moment when antler restrictions were “in vogue” as one way to build up buck counts.
We’ve got a call in to WDFW’s deer guru for the long-term affect on Washington’s big-eared bounders, but one thing is for certain: It and a shorter nine-day season have helped more muleys make it past hunters.
Reads WDFW’s 1998 game status report, “In central Washington, buck escapement went from historic levels of 2 to 4 bucks per 100 does to 8-11 bucks per 100 does in many units. This is still below management goals, but a dramatic improvement in one year.”
In the Southeast corner’s Blue Mountains, for every 100 does, only three to five bucks made it through September, October and November’s seasons before the restrictions, according to now-retired biologist Pat Fowler. Last December his successor Paul Wik counted 16 per 100 does.
Muley and whitetail ranges overlap in some areas, but muleys have yet to evolve a better defense against the .30-06 than to take a few leaps, turn broadside and look at you (well, all except the ones I bump into, of course). They also tend to occupy more open country than flagtails, although that’s not a hard rule.
The whitetail proposal came out of a nine-month review that included at least four meetings and public comment before the commission. In general, the restriction was not favored outside the region, and inside it, there were mixed signals.
“The commission carefully considered the science surrounding white-tailed deer management,” said Wecker. “Based on those considerations, it was clear that a four-point restriction would not create a conservation issue or adversely affect the area deer population.”
At the same time, the commission voted to reduce antlerless hunts as another way to help recover the whitetail herd.
Other rule changes approved last weekend include:
Increase permit hunting for antlerless elk in the Yakima area and for bulls and antlerless elk in the Mount St. Helens area, where elk populations are exceeding management objectives.
Increase spring black bear hunting seasons and permits in western and northeast Washington to help reduce timber damage, address bear nuisance activity and expand hunting opportunities within population management guidelines.
Authorize certain landowners in Asotin County to issue hunting permits to increase access to deer and elk hunting on private lands. Hunting permits for those properties also would be available to the public through WDFW’s special permit drawing.
Clarify public-conduct rules on private lands open for hunting under cooperative agreements with WDFW.