Hunters disagree on season proposals

Will 2009 be the year that general-season whitetail deer hunters in Northeastern Washington will be limited to shooting only bucks with at least four points on one side of their antlers?

Will it be the year the northeast late-buck hunt is extended past Nov. 19?

With roughly the same large number of hunters camped on each side of these and other contentious issues, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department big-game managers realize the potential for a lot of unhappy hunters regardless of which rules they adopt from proposals being made by sportsmen.

State wildlife managers are presenting the pros and cons of these and other proposed rule changes during open-house public meetings and on the agency's web site.

The Fish and Wildlife Department commissioned Responsive Management to conduct two statewide surveys to help gauge public opinion on key issues before heading into the meetings. One probed general public opinion on topics such as predator management while the other targeted hunters and where they stand on more specific issues.

On some issues, hunter opinions were clear:

-- 85 percent wanted no further restrictions on use of lead ammunition.

-- 85 percent were against any reduction of legal shooting hours from the current one half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset.

-- 70 percent favored managing black bears to address faltering deer and elk herds.

-- 70 percent favored using road closures during critical periods to maintain healthy game populations.

-- 70 percent indicated it's important to control use of ATVs and snowmobiles for hunting.

Hunters are polarized, however, by certain issues. For example, according to the surveys, more than 40 percent of hunters stand on opposite sides -- for or against -- proposals such as:

-- An "any-buck" general season for mule deer in Eastern Washington.

-- A three- or four-point minimum antler restriction for whitetail deer in Northeastern Washington.

"The hunter opinion survey found that 44 percent of hunters support a three-point minimum while 42 percent oppose it," said Kevin Robinette, regional wildlife manager in Spokane.

And a separate but related proposal supported by Northeastern Washington businesses seeks to extend the area's late buck season longer into the whitetail rut.

"Hunters who live up here -- they might live across the valley from each other -- are split on these two issues," said Dana Base, area wildlife biologist in Colville.

"We know that bucks become much more vulnerable after Nov. 19, the current closing date," Robinette said, "and, depending on the weather, there's a risk of killing too many of our old mature bucks if we go longer with the season. Those older age classes of bucks would likely decline."

But Northeastern Washington business owners and county commissioners pleaded with the Fish and Wildlife Commission during a meeting in Colville this summer to add another weekend to the late buck hunt for the benefit of working hunters and the area economy.

Pat Fowler, the agency's wildlife biologist based in Walla Walla, has a studied perspective, if not definite recommendations, to offer northeast hunters as they take sides on these proposals.

"The three-point minimum has been successful for Southeastern Washington, where we have a lot of open farmland and most of the bucks are killed in the first day or two of the season," he said. "We went from about three bucks per 100 does postseason to 15 bucks in just a couple of years, and now it's closer to 20. About 70 percent of our whitetail buck harvest is four points or better and 20 percent are more than five points."

Fowler has no doubts that a three- or four-point minimum for whitetails in Northeastern Washington would significantly increase the number of bigger bucks in the region within a couple of years.

But Northeastern Washington check station data indicate the whitetail buck harvest already is around 20 percent five-point or better, Robinette said.

"Our harvest of mature bucks has been increasing, and that indicates they've recovered from the bad winters of the late 90s," he said. "That raises the question, do we need to go to point restriction in the northeast corner of the state? We have a fairly natural, balanced age structure out there."

Wildlife managers say antler restrictions could reduce the number of whitetail hunters in the area, but business owners say it would likely increase the number of serious trophy hunters who tend to travel to instead stay and spend money in the local economy.

"You have to be careful and think ahead with these proposals," Fowler said. "The terrain is different in the southeast compared to the northeast and the other factor is that you have a general season late buck hunt in the northeast. You've got to watch out. If you go to antler restrictions, as the buck survival improves and the age structure increases, you'll attract more hunting pressure in that late season and you could have a problem. It could all be counterproductive."

State biologists have some flexibility, but only to a point if they do their job and maintain big-game populations for the long run, Robinette said.

* Comments on hunting-rule proposals for Washington's 2009-2011 seasons can by made by Sept. 30 on the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department website: wdfw.wa.gov. The state Fish and Wildlife Commission will set the seasons at a future meeting.