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Sunshine filters through the trees onto a mature cow elk.

Idaho Fish and Game’s 2021 elk and deer seasons for the Palisades Zone will come with increased regulation to curb declining female elk and deer populations.

The Palisades Zone (IDF&G units 64, 65, and 67) stretches from the Big Hole range in the west, to the Snake River range in the south, and east to the western slope of the southern Teton range.

Curtis Hendricks, IDF&G Regional Wildlife Manager, talked about the changes hunters will experience this fall.

“Wildlife management is a dynamic endeavor. It’s always a moving target as populations ebb and flow,” said Hendricks.

Elk

The big changes for elk hunters in the Palisades Zone were brought about by unsatisfactory cow elk populations.

“We’ve been hovering at the bottom end of our cow objectives for that zone over the last number of years,” said Hendricks.

F&G tries to manage the Palisades Zone cow elk population towards the lower end of their objectives as the winter range is sparse in the area.

“We knowingly tried to manage towards the bottom end,” said Hendricks. “We try to manage those numbers more on the middle to bottom end there whereas we try to push towards the top end where we don’t have those same limitations.”

An elk herd’s size is primarily driven by hunting, as well as other miscellaneous causes.

“Elk herds are driven through our harvest as well as other factors like vehicle mortality,” said Hendricks. “Over 80% of our harvest mortality was coming out of that rifle portion of that A tag.”

Hendricks and IDF&G are hoping to be able to open back up that antlerless opportunity in a couple of seasons.

“What we’re having to do is take that back, grow more elk, monitor the population, and then as the elk respond to this we’ll hopefully return some more antlerless opportunity back to hunters as the population allows,” said Hendricks.

Elk hunts that were eliminated or reduced are:

The Oct. 22-Nov 16 any weapon antlerless opportunity from the Palisades Zone A tag was eliminated. The Aug. 30-Sept 14 archery only spike or antlerless opportunity from Palisades Zone B tag was eliminated. The Oct 1-Oct 9 unit 64, 65, 67 muzzleloader only either sex hunt was eliminated. Tags for unit 67 any weapon antlerless-only hunt are reduced from 75 to 25 tags.

Mule Deer

Bigger changes are in store for hunters looking to shoot a mule deer in eastern Idaho.

“The big changes that folks are going to see is the elimination of pretty much all of the antlerless opportunities within those units in the Palisades,” said Hendricks. “It also goes broader, across the entire Upper Snake Region.”

IDF&G has acted on the advice of hunters with boots on the ground and confirmed by the department’s surveys.

“This is in response to ourselves and the commission hearing from people that they are worried about the mule deer populations,” said Hendricks. “Our surveys over much of the area and across the region have shown a decline in deer populations.”

The mule deer population ebbs and flows much more than other animals like elk, mainly due to high sensitivity to severe winter conditions.

“The reality is for deer populations, winter severity is what drives our herds,” said Hendricks. “When we get these really bad winters we see fawn recruitment drop to very low numbers.”

When the winters get severe, mule deer also have to worry about another population supply problem.

“Particularly when adult doe mortality exceeds 10%, that digs into it, it’s kind of a double whammy when we lose the fawns and we also lose a productive segment of the population,” said Hendricks.

Whereas the changes for elk hunts are meant to control the populations, the increased regulation of mule deer is meant to remove hunting pressures.

IDF&G strategizes that letting more deer make it through the hunting season will lead to more deer on the other side of winter.

“We hopefully will have some better winter conditions over the next number of years and return those deer herds,” said Hendricks. “When we feel it’s responsible to return antlerless opportunities we’ll seek out ways to try to return that back to youth and sportsmen.“

Mule deer populations are known to fluctuate easier to extremes, something that can be destructive, or highly conducive to a population boom.

“Winter severity can really crush deer populations, but it also allows for rapid recovery when we have good conditions,” said Hendricks. “Populations can turn around pretty quickly, It’s kind of built into the function of deer populations.”

Mule deer hunts that were eliminated or reduced are:

The general antlerless youth harvest (Oct. 10-17) and general season antlerless archery (Aug 3- Sept 30) hunts were eliminated. The either-sex any weapon controlled hunt in unit 67 (Oct. 5- Nov. 8, hunt number 1072) was eliminated. The either-sex muzzleloader controlled hunt in units 64 and 65 (Oct. 25-Nov. 30, hunt number 1101) was eliminated.

Non-Resident Tags

One other notable change from Idaho F&G was adding more regulations on the disbursement of non-resident opportunities, in response to crowded conditions across the region.

Idaho hunters were big proponents of the change, and let F&G know that they wanted to see fewer people traveling into their area to fill a tag.

“We have made the shifts in our non-resident hunter distribution for deer and elk,” said Hendricks. “That was in response to hearing hunters say, ‘hey, it’s getting crowded on the hill, what can we do to try and address that.’”

This change will be monitored over the next couple of seasons, and if hunters are still advising that there are too many people on the hill, reductions aimed at residents could potentially follow.

“We’ll see whether or not to move forward into the next part of this process,” said Hendricks. “Which will be having to evaluate ‘ok, resident hunters, we’ve made reductions and shifts just on non-residents, where are you relative to any changes on your opportunity?’”