Managing Idaho’s white-tailed deer for mass and big antlers is doable.
Whether it is feasible is another matter.
“It depends on what people are willing to give up, to get there,” Idaho Fish and Game biologist Laura Wolf said.
Released this month, Idaho’s latest white-tailed deer management plan, which will direct IDFG on how to best manage the state’s white-tailed deer herds over the next five years, points out that most hunters are satisfied with deer hunting in Idaho.
They think big bucks are nice, but not necessary.
The survey, which drew responses from almost 8,000 hunters compared to 740 deer hunters who responded to a similar survey 15 years ago, shows that Idaho hunters these days are more willing to get involved with white-tailed deer management.
The sport adds around $30 million annually to the state’s economy, according to IDFG, which cites figures compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a three-year period between 2016 and 2017.
Some hunters, according to the latest survey, were dissatisfied with hunter congestion in some areas, caused primarily by out-of-state deer and elk hunters, and with the low percentage of large — more than 5-point — whitetails.
The majority of Idaho’s deer hunters however were satisfied with their deer hunting opportunities and 44 percent of hunters who responded to the 2018 survey reported killing an antlerless deer.
Biologist Barb Moore, who was among wildlife managers who compiled the latest plan, said Idaho hunters have traditionally hunted for the enjoyment of the sport and to put meat on the table.
“A larger segment of the population want to fill the freezer, and it doesn’t necessarily matter what age and sex of deer they harvest,” Moore said.
Moore said what stands out most in the latest management plan is the department’s initiative to conduct a long-term white-tailed deer study.
Most whitetail studies have taken place in the Midwest and on the eastern seaboard. Starting this winter however Idaho Fish and Game plans to begin collaring deer in Idaho for a long-term study on how the Gem State’s populations are faring.
“This winter we’re trapping and collaring as many white-tailed deer as we can to determine their habits, their survival and if they die, what killed them,” Moore said.
The research will also target buck survival and habits.
“There is a small population of hunters who are truly after bucks, and big bucks,” she said.
Although some hunters have said they want the department to manage for big bucks, Moore points out that genetics and strong food sources conducive to growing big bucks — corn, wheat and mast such as acorns — are usually a Midwestern and eastern phenomenon.
Eliminating competition for available food is one way to get big deer. In Idaho that would mean removing smaller deer from the herd.
According to the management plan, “This approach ensures adequate nutritional resources are available for remaining bucks to reach full antler growth potential.”
Whether the plan would grow big bucks is another matter.
Not all mature bucks have big antlers, and some younger bucks have antlers of five points or more.
When it comes to hunter congestion, Moore said, it isn’t specific to one species.
Because deer seasons — include whitetails, mule deer, elk and even moose seasons — overlap, the combination of many seasons running at once with many hunters chasing Idaho’s big game can evolve into temporary hunter congestion.
Some of the most congested units are along the western edge of the Panhandle.
The plan discusses options.
Under current management, hunters have flexibility to hunt during extended seasons that align with hunters’ desires, according to the plan.
Changing that structure could mean restrictions on where hunters are allowed to pursue game.
The plan is available for viewing on the Idaho Fish and Game website, by clicking the wildlife tab.