Long Winter Hurts Methow Fawns

Good surveying conditions and an increasing herd led to the highest spring mule deer count in Okanogan County in nearly two decades, another potentially good sign for this fall, but this winter’s snowier weather may impact hunting two seasons from now.

Jeff Heinlen, a local state wildlife biologist, says that “almost 3,000” deer were surveyed in the Methow and Okanogan Valleys, the heart of some of Washington’s best muley hunting country.

Roughly two-thirds were in the former valley, one third in the latter during the late March-mid-April driving-route count, he says.

However, winter 2010-11 appears to have taken a toll on young deer in the higher, colder, snowier Methow. Fawn-to-adult ratios were 27:100 there, down from 41:100 following 2009-10’s weak winter.

“Deep snow doesn’t work for the energetics of a fawn,” says Heinlen.

He says the snows came in mid-December and were still on the ground deep into March.

Potentially that could be bad news for the 2012 hunt when those fawns will be 2 1/2 years old, the age-class that, with the three-point minimum for muleys, makes up a large part of the annual kill.

That said, ideal rain and forage conditions next year could also spur antler development on younger bucks and plug that gap, he says.

“It’s hard to have a crystal ball,” Heinlen adds.

The lower, warmer, more snow-sheltered Okanogan Valley saw its snow in March, but the previous months were easier, Heinlen says. The fawn:adult ratio there was 41:100.

“Forty-one’s OK — that does allow for some increase,” he says, adding, “Twenty-seven, I’d rather not see that.”

Overall in Okanogan County outside the Colville Reservation, there were 31 fawns for every 100 bucks and does, nine below last year’s count, but more than were seen during the 2006, ’07 and ’08 surveys.

High marks back through 1993 include 60:100 in 1999 and 56:100 in 2000 while low marks include 17:100 following 1996-97’s horrible winter and 18:100 coming out of 2005-06’s.

WDFW performs the spring count during the green-up when the deer are out and easier to count, but this year’s was delayed a bit by lingering wintry conditions.

Lower than usual snowline may have also just made more deer visible than other years.

“The deer population has been increasing the past three years, but the bigger factor is the timing,” says Heinlen.

Only the 2010 spring count of 2,711 deer comes anywhere close to this year’s. Low marks have included 844 and 764 in 1993 and 1994, respectively, and 1,260 in 2004.

MULE DEER COUNTED IN SPRING 2010 ON THE SCOTCH CREEK WILDLIFE AREA, A 16,560-ACRE, FIVE-UNIT STATE PROPERTY IN CENTRAL AND NORTHEAST OKANOGAN COUNTY. (WDFW)

WDFW runs two annual deer surveys here, the other in late fall following the hunt. Last autumn’s found 24 bucks per 100 does, fourth most back through at least 1991.

That said, the agency feels the Okanogan’s herd is still in a long-term gradual decline over the past three and a half decades based on harvests and population estimates.

“This is likely a function of the reduced productivity of aging shrubs (particularly bitterbrush and ceanothus) and the lack of recruitment of new shrubs under continued fire suppression regimes. As a result, even during periods of extended mild winter weather, the population is not rebounding to the historic highs of the mid 1900s, suggesting a reduction in landscape carrying capacity for deer,” Heinlen and district wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin write in WDFW’s 2010 game status and trend report.

WOLVES Since this is also where Washington’s first pack in 70 years set up, I asked Heinlen about the latest news on the wolf front.

He says it’s believed there are only two left in the Lookout Pack, the alpha male and another. Biologists are watching for denning activity, but nothing may happen this year.

“We suspect (the other wolf) is one of (the alpha’s) pups,” acknowledges Heinlen.

The pack is the only one outside of the Northern Rockies’ population that was delisted from the Endangered Species Act earlier this month. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is taking comments on whether it should be lumped in with those animals, or if the western portions of Washington and Oregon should have its own distinct unit.

In other wolf news, ODFW trapped and killed two from the Imnaha Pack due to livestock kills last year and this spring. They also recollared the alpha male with a working GPS collar after its initial collar failed last year.

“We hope the experience discourages the alpha male from returning to this area, which is private land with livestock operations,” said Russ Morgan, ODFW wolf coordinator, in a press release.

TURKEYS Heinlen adds that the Okanogan’s spring turkey hunt has been “pretty slow.”

“We’re not sure why. Our populations are probably down a lot. Upland birds were hit by spring rains last year, and it’s probably the same for turkeys,” he says.

The hunt continues through May 31.

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