2007 Mule Deer Forecast

By David Long

David LongDavid Long
Issue 99

Although it is only February and it seems like last year's hunting season just wrapped up, it is already time for all of us to begin the application process and start planning for the 2007 deer hunting season. As we sift through the many application booklets, harvest statistics, hunter surveys and fi sh and game websites, we are left with the daunting task of making sense of all this information in hopes of narrowing our choices of where we want to apply this season. Th is forecast is meant to give you a little bit of insight on how the mule deer populations are doing in various states, as well as give you suggestions on narrowing down the best possible hunting units. To obtain this information, we went straight to the source. We visited with many biologists from each state and got their picks for the top trophy units, as well as some lesser-known units that off er the dedicated hunter, who is willing to put in the time and effort, a good chance at a trophy buck.

While the banner mule deer days may have been back in the sixties, while researching this article, it was clear there are still good numbers of trophy caliber bucks being taken during recent years in all of the western states. We have also included two up to date B&C entry tables for quick reference. Both tables only include B&C entries from 2000-2006 that were large enough to qualify for the B&C Awards program. The minimum scores for the Award's program is 180 for typicals and 215 for non-typicals. Table 1 shows the top eight states, while Table 2 lists the top six counties. Following is a compilation of information that will get you on the right track and will hopefully make your 2007 season your best season yet.

Coconino and Mohave Counties have been throughout history the top producing counties in the state - and still are. As a matter of fact, 75% of Arizona's B&C bucks have come from Coconino County alone. This past year at the Jacob Lake Check Station, a required check station for all hunters in Unit 12A, Tim Holt with the AGFD reports that the quality of deer appeared to be very good and seemed to be slightly better than the previous year. Now the bad news, your odds of drawing one of the highly coveted tags are less than two percent. All is not lost though, if you are absolutely just dying to hunt the famed Kaibab for mule deer, there is a way. Arizona issues unlimited archery tags for a September hunt in Units 12A & 13A. Archery success during this hunt normally runs well below 10 percent, but it is defi nitely about the only way a lot of us will ever be able to hunt the Kaibab area.

There are a total of eight units in the state that the AGFD currently manages for older trophy class bucks. These units are 12A, 12B, 13A, 13B, 16A, 45A, 45B & 45C. Draw odds for all of these units are extremely low, but according to Tim Holt, there are other alternative areas in the state that are worth checking into that are producing decent sized bucks. Tim commented that every unit in the state contains mule deer, but some of the better, lesser-known units are located in the central part of the state. Units worth researching are 17A, 18B, 22, 23 & 27. Draw odds for these fi ve areas average 34% and 150-160 class bucks are common. For the guy that is willing to hunt hard, a 170-class buck is not out of the question.

Although several western states are still struggling maintaining populations and trophy quality, Colorado is defi nitely on the rebound. The trophy quality in Colorado is unbelievable right now and some people think that the trophy potential is as good as it has ever been. That is a big statement considering Colorado's long trophy mule deer history. Currently, the majority of the units that are managed for trophy quality will take you 3-10 years of accumulating preference points before you can draw a tag. The nice thing is, as you build your preference points in a quality unit, there are plenty of great units that can be obtained as a second, or even a third choice, which are better than some other states' 'quality' hunts.

Colorado basically has four rifle seasons. The fi rst season is exclusively for elk, while you can hunt deer and elk in the remaining three seasons. The later the season, typically the harder it is to draw a tag. Therefore, most fourth season tags are extremely tough to draw, but typically offer the best chances at a trophy buck. One third of all B&C entries over the years have been harvested in this great state. Although these entries have came from all regions of the state, during recent years, the majority of B&C bucks have came from the western half of the state. Every single county on the west side of the state is producing exceptional deer, but Eagle and Gunnison Counties have topped the list with B&C entries since 2000. Eagle County is pretty much made up of Units 35, 36, 44, 45 & 444. Unit 44 is the most sought after tag in the county, but all of these units have good deer and should not be overlooked.

The best chance at a trophy in Gunnison County would be in either Unit 54 or 55. Both units have excellent genetics and have been producing some absolute monsters including an archery buck that scored over 260 non-typical. If you decide on either of these units, you had better be patient, because it will take many years to obtain enough preference points to draw a tag.

There are plenty of other 'easier to draw' tags available in Colorado. Any of the units in Mesa, Moffat, Montrose and Pi tkin Count ies are all wor th consideration.

Not too long ago, Idaho was one of the tags you wanted to have in your pocket, but as of late, it is not even close to what it used to be. The most popular general season tags are the 'southeastern deer tags'. These tags are sold on a fi rstcome, fi rst-served basis and the 2007 tags went on sale December 1, 2006. Unfortunately, by the time you read this article, these tags will be long sold out. The tags are valid in units 75, 76, 77 & 78, which are located entirely within Caribou and Franklin Counties. Combined, these two counties have produced nearly 30 B&C entries.

In addition to the southeast tags, the IDFG issues a statewide quota of nearly 11,000 tags that are also sold on a fi rstcome, fi rst-served basis. These tags very rarely sell out, which makes Idaho a popular destination for mule deer hunters that didn't have any success drawing any other states. If the tags haven't been sold out, you can simply drive to Idaho during the deer season and buy a deer tag and hunting license at one of the many authorized vendors and start hunting. According to Steve Schmidt with the IDFG, the deer population in the Snake region suffered a little bit of a die off last winter, but the units north of Heise are doing fairly well. The herd that is suffering the most is the Tex Creek herd, which is comprised of Units 66, 67 & 69. According to Steve, mule deer numbers in these units are still on the decline. It is speculated that an explosion in the elk population in that area over the last 10 years is leading to unwanted competition for food amongst the deer and elk, both on the summer and winter ranges. Steve also stated that this year they are implementing a hunter survey to get input from deer hunters regarding their expectations and what they would like to see. He did state that this would lead to some areas being managed as trophy areas. He said that two areas worth checking into would be Units 59 & 59A. The limited quota draw tags are the most sought after tags in the state and for good reason. The tags are very limited in numbers and often allow you to hunt until late November, which allows you to take advantage of the rut and migration. Two of the best trophy quality units in the state have been units 45 & 69, but with the current deer population decline in Unit 69, quality has really suffered. Unit 69 can still provide you with a quality hunt if you get good amounts of snow because the deer will migrate into this unit from surrounding units as well as Wyoming. Unit 45 is probably the most sought after deer tag in the state. Several years ago this unit was producing some amazing B&C class bucks, but over the course of the last couple of years, the trophy quality seems to be trending downward as well. With that being said, it is still the best tag in the state.

Although Montana has not traditionally been observed as a great trophy mule deer destination, it has produced its fair share of huge typicals during recent years, including a new state record in 2004 that scores 207 7/8 B&C. According to Jim Williams, a regional wildlife manager for MFWP, this turnaround is a direct result of a program they call Habitat Montana. The program provides funds for habitat preservation and conservation easements for sportsmen.

Other than the Missouri Breaks country, located in Regions 4,6 & 7, just about all of the best quality units can be found on the western half of the state in Regions 2, 3 & 4. Jim stated that Region 1 is primarily whitetail country, but that Units 100, 104 & 121 all produce a few quality mule deer as well. He said that deer numbers are relatively low but he normally scores at least one head a year from these areas that will qualify for entry into B&C, including one last year that netted 195 typical. The main reason that more quality bucks are not taken is because the backcountry hunts are so physically demanding. The high country is extremely tough to hike into and once you are there, the Alder-choked basins are very tough to glass because of the thick vegetation. Jim also mentioned that Unit 130 in the Mission Mountain Wilderness is worth looking into if you want to hunt the high country in mid- September. It is one of the few early season rifl e hunts available that allows you to hunt the high country in September. This area has produced several good bucks, but Jim warns, the country is extremely rugged and hard to hunt.

Region 2 has more open terrain and has some super quality units in Ravalli County, but they are extremely tough to draw. According to John Vore, the wildlife biologist for Ravalli County, Units 261 & 270 which are located in the southern Bitterroot Valley, are both managed for older age class bucks and are truly the state's success stories for trophy mule deer. Prior to 1999, these units were not on a limited quota system and the majority of the bucks that were harvested were immature bucks. Since 1999, these two units have had extremely conservative tag quotas resulting in a large increase of the older age class bucks. John added that many of the bucks taken are in the 8-9 year old range. Units 204, 240 & 250 have also seen a slight increase in age class, but nowhere near the drastic change that has taken place in the prior two units. Overall, the Bitterroot Valley has a very stable mule deer population and the ratio of bucks per does has increased due to the harvesting of females.

Nevada's deer tags are very limited and extremely tough to draw. With a very conservative harvest every year, the buck to doe ratio in certain units is upward of 45 bucks per 100 does, and that is leading to some great quality bucks coming from the state the past few seasons. Although the state of Nevada produces good bucks from one end of the state to the other, as of late, it seems that the bulk of the top heads have been coming from Lincoln County. Unit 231, which lies in the south-central part of the county, is well known for its huge nontypical bucks; therefore, it is one of the toughest tags in the state to draw. This unit has lots of small rolling hills that are covered with Pinion/Juniper and can be extremely tough to hunt. According to Doug Nielson with the NDOW, in order for a hunter to be successful in harvesting one of the bigger bucks in the unit, they better be willing to 'burn a lot of shoe leather.' The quality of deer is there and according to Doug, it is one of those units that can produce the buck of a lifetime, but it is not an easy hunt.

The northeastern region of the state has historically produced the most trophy mule deer, particularly Elko County. This region has produced as much as 75% of the statewide mule deer harvest in the past. Elko County has everything from desert to above timberline hunts. The Elko area is basically divided into three hunt units, which are Areas 6, 7 & 10. Of the three, Area 6 has the most access. There are pretty much roads everywhere you may want to go and according to Tony Wasley, who is a biologist in the Elko area, stated that the trophy quality from this area was exceptional this past season. One of the bucks was a 33' wide 9 x 13 that was only 4 years of age. But he said the bad news is that there were a million acres lost to wildfi res in Area 6 this last year which led to the department implementing depredation hunts on antlerless deer to try and offset the winter kill that is expected this winter due to the loss of habitat in the fi res. This loss of habitat is sure to affect this herd in the next few years.

Area 10 has the most remote country and continues to have the state's largest deer population. According to Tony, the guy who is willing to throw on the backpack and penetrate the wilderness high up in the beautiful Ruby Mountains has a good chance at an exceptional buck. Depending on the time of year you want to hunt, there is an early season that runs the fi rst part of October or a late season hunt that runs late October into November. The early season hunt allows you to hunt the deer in the high country above timberline in some of the most beautiful country you will ever see, while the late season hunt relies more on snow to push the deer out of the high country down onto the lower benches. You will see good numbers of bucks on both the early and late hunts. Area 7 has a good combination of both roaded country, as well as plenty of roadless terrain. Tony stated that the herds are doing very well in this area and the buck to doe ratios look very good.

New Mexico
Rio Arriba County is all you need to know when looking for trophy mule deer in New Mexico. The best quality public land units are located on the western side of Rio Arriba County just south of the Colorado border. Typically, the season runs the fi rst part of November and the quality of the hunt can be very dependent of the weather conditions. According to Ross Morgan with the NMDGF, Units 2B and 2C are the most sought out trophy units in the state, with 2C usually being the best. Unit 2C has a good resident deer population as well as some deer that migrate off the Jicarilla Indian Reservation. The trophy quality in 2B depends heavily on whether there is enough snow accumulations in the high country of Colorado which forces these deer to migrate south across the state line into this unit. Two years ago there were a lot of good quality bucks harvested in this unit, but last year the bulk of the harvest were young, immature bucks. Ross stated that Unit 10, which is located on the northwestern side of the state, should not be overlooked. In this particular unit, a hunter can expect to harvest a 170 class buck if he is willing to put out the necessary effort.

Although the southern region of the state does not get the attention, the northern end does; it still provides good hunting opportunities in certain units that can produce 180 class bucks. According to Brian Novasak who is a biologist with the NMDGF in Roswell, one of the better areas in the southern end are the Sand Hills. The Sand Hills are small rolling type hills which are located in game management Units 31 & 33. The elevation is between 3000-3500' and requires a lot of hiking to hunt it effectively. Brian also stated that if a person is willing to hike to the top of the Cap Rock area of the Sand Hills, which is the dividing line between the two units, it offers great glassing opportunities and that 'spot and stalk' type hunting works very well. If it is a high mountain type hunt you are after, Brian said you might want to check out Units 34 & 36 which are located in the south-central part of the state. The units have a mixed conifer cover along with elevations of 12,000 feet, but Brian said most of the mule deer can be found at around the 8000-foot level.

The best rifl e mule deer hunts can be found in the southeastern corner of the state, particularly in Units 68 & 69. These hunts normally take place the fi rst part of October. Unit 68, which is located in the Trout Creek Mountains, is also the hardest rifle tag to draw in the state and for good reason. The unit is located in Malhuer County, which has had more B&C entries than any other county in Oregon since 2000. Oregon allows the traditional archer (long bow or recurve) a great hunting opportunity in Unit 68 during late August and early September. These tags are unlimited and allow you to hunt what is essentially the state's best mule deer area. For archers using a compound bow, there is a general deer bow tag that allows you to hunt the majority of the state during late August through late September.

According to Ron Garner, a biologist with the OFGD, although Unit 68 generally produces a good number of trophy deer, the deer population in that unit, along with Units 69 & 71, is only 1/3 to � of the department's population objective. Generally speaking Unit 68 is divided into two areas, east Whitehorse and the Trout Creek Mountains on the west with the latter having the best trophy quality. In recent years the department has drastically reduced tags in these units in an effort to bring numbers back up. Even with the low deer numbers, the Trout Creek Mountains still maintain one buck to doe ratio of 40-50 bucks per hundred does. A couple of other areas Ron mentioned that can provide good buck hunting opportunities, although not as popular as the previous units, are Units 46, 65 & 66.

According to Steven George, a wildlife biologist for the OFGD, another great archery hunt takes place in Unit 39 during November and is extremely tough to draw. This unit lies north of Bend and takes advantage of the deer migration. The trophy quality can be very good when the snow starts piling up in the Cascade Mountains and deer are forced to head toward their wintering grounds located in the unit. Steve stated that the deer just don't see much hunting pressure at the higher elevations and if it wasn't for this archery hunt, many of them would simply die of old age. Other units that Ron & Steve suggested that would give a hunter a good chance at a trophy are Units 71, 73, 76 & 77.

In recent years, Utah's premium limited entry units, namely the Paunsaugunt and Henry Mountains, have been turning out their fair share of quality heads. These premium units are managed to maintain a 35:100 buck to doe ratio and an average age class of harvested bucks of fi ve years. Considering the quality of the bucks that have been taken in the premium units as of late is evidence that the management objectives are working as planned. Population numbers in the Henry's is approaching the department's objectives and according to Bruce Bonebarker, a habitat manager for UDWR, the trophy quality has been exceptional the past two years. Just this last season, the Henry's produced a huge 260 plus non-typical. The Henry Mountains only has one available non-resident rifl e tag and no archery or muzzleloader tags. According to Craig McLaughlin, Big Game Coordinator for the UDWR, the Henry's herd also has the highest buck to doe ratio in the state with a ratio of 48:100. Your odds of drawing one of the world famous Paunsaugunt tags are a little better with nine available rifl e tags and three each of archery and muzzleloader tags. Although this area doesn't seem to be producing the monsters of yesteryear, it sounds like it is rebounding. The deer populations have been increasing in the Paunsaugunt unit and the area sports a buck to doe ratio of 46:100.

The Book Cliffs is another limited entry unit that has great trophy potential. This area was closed for several years but was re-opened a few years back and is starting to produce some good heads every year. This is a hunt where you can plan on seeing a lot of bucks and the herd numbers are very stable. Non-resident opportunities are a little better in this unit with the availability of more tags than the Paunsaugunt and Henry's combined. There are a total of 31 non-resident rifl e tags and seven each of archery and muzzleloader tags. This area also has a very high buck to doe ration of 42:100. According to Bruce, there are other areas of the state that give hunters a good trophy opportunity other than the high profile trophy areas. He stated that population numbers in the northern region of the state are on the rise and that the general units in the Uinta Mountains are worth looking at. He also added that the Beaver Mountain area in Beaver and Piute Counties have been producing exceptional quality bucks the past few seasons.

'Where are all of the deer?' That was one of the most popular questions by hunters this past year at WGFD check stations in Region H. Not only has there been a decrease in numbers, but there has definitely been a downturn in trophy quality as well. It appears that the once highly coveted Region H tags are not what they used to be. Evidence of this is that the Region H special tag had a draw success rate of 100%! Several years of 'not so good' hunting has caused die-hard applicants to stop applying and move on to other hunts.

All is not gloom and doom for Region H though. Although hunting is extremely tough and the trophy opportunities are far and few in between, there were still several good deer harvested in the region this past year, including a typical buck that gross scores 203 B&C. There were also several non-typicals that gross scored over 200.

Region G appeared to be slightly better than Region H as far as deer numbers are concerned. Gary Fralick, a WGFD biologist who mans the Grey's River check station every year, stated that even with the poor weather conditions during the fi rst week of the September deer hunt, the number of harvested mule deer bucks checked at the Grey's River check station increased in 2006 over 2005 levels. A total of 59 bucks were checked in 2005, while 101 bucks were checked in 2006. The increase in harvest checks is a direct result of average to above average over-winter survival of mule deer during the last two winters (2004-2005 and 2005-2006). He also added that they did not experience the extremely high winter deer mortality the last two years like they did during the winter of 2003-2004. Consequently, more deer survived the last two winters, especially fawns and yearlings, which is a good sign for next year because if the youngest age classes survive the winter, it usually means the older, more mature deer did as well.

When asked about the bucks he checked, Gary said most of the bucks were between the ages of two and eight years of age. The average age of bucks with an antler spread of 19 inches or less was two years old, while those bucks with an outside antler spread of 20 inches or better, averaged four years of age. It is also typical that 80-90% of all the bucks checked have at least four-points on each antler.

Area 162 in the western region of the state can also offer great trophy opportunities. This season runs the last part of October and if there are good snow accumulations in the high country, the best bucks can be found in the sagebrush fl ats. What makes this area so good is the fact that a large proportion of the bucks from Region H migrate through the area. Therefore, you have a chance at fi nding a real smoker buck given the right conditions.

Area 82, which is in Carbon County, is probably the best trophy quality area in the state. Tags are extremely limited, but the quality of the unit is not. In 2006 there were several good bucks taken from the area that scored over 200 inches nontypical, including an archery buck that scores over 220. Carbon County has been one of the top counties in the west during recent years.

Conclusion Do your research. The information in this forecast is only a small piece of the puzzle that will help you get going in the right direction. You will still need to get out your maps and make additional phone calls if you truly want to give yourself the best possible chance at harvesting a trophy buck in 2007. One thing to keep in mind is this; although most western states are struggling with maintaining good mule deer populations right now, there are some real 'bargains' that can be had. All of the negative publicity has led to reduced numbers of applicants in many drawings and the draw odds have actually crept up in some of the best trophy units. This won't stay this way forever, so you need to be taking advantage of these opportunities while they are presenting themselves. Remember, do your research, hunt hard, hunt smart and make 2007 your best season ever!