If you want the quick version of what the 2021 big game season is likely to look like, here it is: similar to last year for elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer. There’s been no dramatic changes to the statewide populations for those animals up or down, and the statewide harvests for 2021 should also be similar to 2020.
However, biologists are closely tracking a disease outbreak among deer herds in the Clearwater area, and it’s too early to tell how that may affect the larger population and fall hunts.
In 2020, hunters harvested 22,776 elk, 24,809 mule deer and 24,849 whitetails. Elk harvest was above the 10-year average, and deer harvests were slightly below it. Success rates were 23 percent for elk hunters, 28 percent for mule deer hunters and 44 percent for whitetail hunters.
Thanks in part to a relatively mild winter and healthy herds in most parts of the state, Fish and Game Deer/Elk Coordinator Rick Ward expects 2021 harvests will meet, or possibly exceed, last year’s harvest because there are plenty of animals available, but there are also some changes that could affect that.
As usual, there’s more to the big picture.
Idaho’s big game harvest over the last decade has generally stayed within the bounds of normal fluctuations and been fairly predictable. For example, elk harvests rose to about 20,000 animals in 2014 and have stayed above that number ever since and reflect a healthy, robust and relatively stable population, which is likely to continue.
Mule deer populations tend to have more spikes and drops, which is largely driven by weather, or more specifically, winters. Mild winters like last winter typically mean growing herds, or at minimum, stable ones.
Hard winters mean lower fawn survival and fewer young bucks the following fall, and severe winters kill a significant number of the adults, and herds may take years to recover. That is also reflected in the mule deer harvest over the last five years after herds and harvests took a substantial hit after the 2016-17 winter.
“Mule deer are kind of the poster child for boom and bust populations,” Ward said.
White-tailed deer populations tend to be a little more stable than mule deer populations, but they are still affected by weather and disease. Over the last decade, whitetail harvests have not fluctuated as much as mule deer, and Idaho’s whitetail harvests have been at, or near, historic levels in recent years. Last year also marked the third time in the last 10 years the state’s whitetail harvest exceeded the mule deer harvest.
“If you think back a few decades, that would have been unimaginable,” Ward said.