After nearly two years of public comment and meetings, significant last-minute changes are being proposed for Washington's fall hunting rules just two months before the state Fish and Wildlife Commission will set the 2009 seasons.
-- Non-toxic shot requirements would be phased in for upland bird hunting on pheasant release areas and state wildlife management lands over the next three years.
-- Antlerless deer permit numbers would be slashed because of last year's winter kill, and the number of days seniors, youths and disabled hunters will have to hunt antlerless deer would be reduced dramatically.
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-- A modern-rifle bull elk permit would be offered in each of seven Blue Mountains units for a five-day September season near the peak of the rut, and late-season archery elk hunts would be shortened.
-- A late Thanksgiving-week whitetail buck hunt, originally suggested for Unit 111 (Aladdin) in northern Stevens County has grown to include six northeastern Washington units.
-- Fall wild turkey hunting seasons would be liberalized further by changing the late permit hunt to a general season.
Some of the new recommendations evolved after the public meeting process from a range of inside input -- from agency staff in Olympia to citizen advisory groups -- and they aren't necessarily set in stone, officials said this week.
The proposal for modern rifle bull elk permits during the rut in the Blue Mountains stems from a hunter advisory group.
Region 1 wildlife biologists said they didn't know much about the proposals until just before it appeared on the agency's website last week.
Looking at harvest data, modern rifle hunters argued that bowhunters have been killing a higher proportion of trophy bulls because of their longer season, which includes the rut, when big bulls are most vulnerable.
Management for mature bulls has done the job of creating more trophies, and modern rifle hunters want a rare shot at them in the bugle season, when success rates on breeding bulls would likely be 100 percent.
One any-bull permit is being offered in each of seven units -- 149, 154, 162, 172 and elk areas 1008, 1009, 1014 -- for a Sept. 21-25 season.
Similar rut-hunt permits also are proposed for eight Yakima region units, including the Colockum area.
Although he didn't have a specific comment on the proposals, Pat Fowler, the biologist who manages the Blue Mountains herds, said he worries that increasing permit levels could quickly erode the number of big bulls.
"We're about a year behind in our big-game surveys, so we don't even know for sure how much impact we've had with the previous increases in bull permits," he said. "We really need to be on top of this."
Similarly, some biologists and a contingent of hunters from the Chewelah area are concerned about proposals to allow whitetail buck hunts during their most vulnerable period of the year, the peak of the rut, Nov. 20-25.
Five permits are proposed for Units 105, 108, 117, 121 and 124, while 25 permits are suggested for 111.
Biologists in recent years have stood against hunting the big bucks after Nov. 19 to maintain buck quality in Northeastern Washington.
This increase in pressure on big bucks comes at the same time antlerless permits are being slashed because of last year's winter kill and the potential for big losses this year.
It's alarming to some hunters that the changes would reduce youth hunting for antlerless whitetails from five weeks to two -- a 60 percent reduction.
"The best way to encourage lifelong hunting is for youth to be successful in their first few years," a reader, Lee Chapel, commented by e-mail. "These proposed changes will greatly reduce that chance and ultimately reduce the number of hunters."
Public comments on these and other recommendations will be accepted by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department through Feb. 20.
The proposals are available on the agency's Web site: www.wdfw.wa.gov.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider these recommendations and will take additional public input at its March 6-7 meeting in Ellensburg.
Final commission action is scheduled for April 3-4 in Olympia.
New for 2009: Washington special hunt applications will be due on May 20 -- that's a month earlier than in recent years.
Despite all the potential last-minute changes, officials say the hunting rules pamphlets will be available in mid-April. Drawing results will be available before the end of June. In recent years, the results weren't available until late July.