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Bull elk

How drought impacts deer and elk; tips for hunters during the 2021 hunts

Buck deer

Buck deer

Salt Lake City — Several years of ongoing drought conditions and the extreme drought this summer have decreased mule deer populations across the state. Here are a few things people hunting deer and elk this fall should know.

Drought impacts deer by decreasing their body fat (because there are fewer plants and available food sources on the landscape). If the does have poor body fat and nutrition, it leads to smaller fawns, and those fawns have a decreased chance of surviving. If an adult deer has too little body fat at the beginning of the winter — especially a severe winter — it will often not survive the winter months.

The current deer population in Utah is roughly 320,000 deer, which is the lowest total number of deer in the state in several years (although not as low as 2010 or the early 2000s). While hunting bucks doesn't impact the total population growth rate, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has decreased the total hunting permit numbers for the last several years in order to better manage to the buck-to-doe ratios outlined in the management plans.

Two bull elk

Bull elk

"Deer numbers have decreased roughly 60,000 from about four years ago due to climatic effects and drought," DWR Big Game Coordinator Covy Jones said. "Hunters should be aware that when there are fewer total deer on the landscape, it may be harder to find deer during the hunt."

Elk are not impacted by drought the same way as deer, and elk populations have remained stable for several years, with an estimated 80,000 across the state. Elk adults typically won't die due to low body fat conditions the way deer do, but their pregnancy rates may be reduced, resulting in fewer new calves being born that year.

Recent projects to help big game populations

DWR biologists are continuously working to better manage and help big game populations, especially during drought years. Here is a look at some of those projects over the last year:

  • From December 2020 to March 2021, the DWR and its partners captured 1,024 big animals across Utah (651 of which were deer, and 115 were elk.) These captures take place so biologists can perform health assessments and place GPS collars on the animals to learn more about their survival and migration patterns. This monitoring helps biologists determine factors that are limiting the population, which allows them to implement management actions such as habitat projects to improve winter and summer feeding ranges for big game.
  • In addition to monitoring adults and 6-month-old fawns, the DWR has also been studying deer and elk on the Book Cliffs to learn more about the primary causes of death for newborn deer fawns and elk calves. DWR biologists, in partnership with researchers from Brigham Young University, captured and collared 30 pregnant does and 30 pregnant elk in March. They implanted trackers to learn when the animals gave birth, and then they later placed tracking collars on the baby deer fawns and elk calves. When one of the collars emits a mortality signal — indicating an animal has died — the biologists can quickly find the animal and determine a cause of death. Determining the cause of mortality allows biologists to address factors that are limiting population growth. Biologists caught and collared 27 newly born deer fawns in the Book Cliffs area of northeastern Utah, and later learned that 16 of those died, with the majority of the deaths being related to drought. Biologists also captured and placed tracking collars on 30 newly born elk calves in the Book Cliffs. In contrast to deer, only five of these calves have died, and most were killed by predators.
  • From July 2020 to July 2021, DWR biologists and partnering organizations also installed 33 water guzzlers and repaired an additional 18. Guzzlers are large devices that catch and store water from snow and rain. They provide drinking water for wildlife and are especially important during hot, dry summers. The DWR currently maintains 774 guzzlers across the state.
  • From July 2020 to July 2021, DWR habitat biologists and partners through Utah's Watershed Restoration Initiative improved 227,267 acres of wildlife habitat, including areas that had been burned by wildfires. Of that terrain, 161,485 acres were big game habitat areas. The habitat crews used various restoration methods such as removing invasive plants; planting beneficial feed such as sagebrush, grasses and bitterbrush; restoring aspen trees to landscapes; repairing and restoring eroded streams and rehabilitating an area after wildfires.

"As an agency, we strive to do everything we can to help big game and other wildlife populations remain healthy throughout Utah," Jones said. "Whether you are a hunter or wildlife watcher, we want all Utahns to be able to enjoy the incredible animals that we have here in the state."

The general-season buck deer archery hunt and the general spike and any-bull elk archery hunts are the first big game hunts of Utah's fall season, and they all begin Saturday, Aug. 21. The general-season spike and any-bull elk hunts (with any legal weapon) run from Oct. 9–21, and the general-season buck deer hunt (with any legal weapon) runs from Oct. 23–31.

Whether you are a first-time hunter or a seasoned veteran, it's always a good idea to get a refresher on things that can help you be successful during your hunt. If you are planning to hunt deer or elk in Utah this fall, here are some tips to help you be successful during the archery and rifle hunts:

Hunt away from the road

If you are hoping to harvest a deer or elk this fall, make sure you are hunting in areas away from the road.

Youth hunter with rifle

"Elk avoid roads, so especially when you are hunting elk, get off the road," Jones said. "Get out and do some hiking and scout to see where these animals are before the hunt begins."

Look for rugged terrain

When it comes to deer, mature bucks and does are not together during the August archery hunts. So if you are seeing a lot of does in an area, it's a sign that you should probably move to a different spot. Does have to care for their fawns, so they typically prefer areas where there is a lot of water and the terrain is more gentle, like in rolling aspen groves.

"Bucks will gather in herds of little 'bachelor groups,' and they like more rugged mountain terrain," Jones said. "So, if you are looking for a bigger buck, look for terrain that is harder to access."

Pay attention to the direction of the wind

Another tip for archery hunters is to know the direction of the wind. That way, you can make adjustments and prevent your scent from reaching the animals before you get within range. As the sun heats the ground, the wind direction changes. For example, wind almost always blows up canyons in the morning and down canyons in the afternoon.

To know the direction the wind is blowing, you can buy an inexpensive item called a wind or breeze checker. Releasing powder from the checker will let you know the direction the wind is blowing. Once you've determined the direction the wind is blowing, approach the deer from the side (a 90-degree angle) rather than approaching it with the wind in your face (at a 180-degree angle). If you approach with the wind in your face and then the wind shifts and starts blowing from your back, it'll blow your scent directly to the deer. Approaching from the side reduces the chance that a wind shift will carry your scent to the deer.

Be prepared for the weather and possible emergencies

Hunters should also be prepared for any weather and should always have a first-aid kit and plenty of water with them. The weather in Utah's mountains can change very quickly and go from sunny to snowing in a matter of minutes, so hunters need to be prepared with adequate clothing and supplies.

Use binoculars and be stealthy

Having success during the archery hunt requires stealth and patience. For example, if you're going to use a spot-and-stalk method, don't just walk through the woods, hoping to find a deer without spooking it. Instead, spend time looking through binoculars at an area to find deer and locate where they're bedding. Then, after they've bedded down, plan your stalk, remaining quiet and doing all you can to approach the deer at an angle that keeps your scent from reaching them.

"Stealth and knowing the wind direction are more important for archery hunters than for rifle hunters, as archery hunters need to get closer to the animal to be effective," Jones said. "It all depends on the hunter and their skill level, and equipment, but typically, most bows have sights that allow for shooting at 60 yards or less. And typically, the accuracy of most rifles starts to decline between 300–400 yards. I recommend not trying to 'overshoot' with your equipment and to stick with a distance where you are comfortable. You should also always know what is beyond your target before taking a shot."

Hunter with bow and arrow

Do your research before heading out

It is also a good idea to visit the Utah Hunt Planner before heading out into the field. This great online resource includes notes from the biologists who manage the various hunting units across the state, as well as general information about the units and safety and weather items. You can see information about the number of bucks on the units, compared to the number of does. You'll also find maps that show the units' boundaries, which land is public and private, and the various types of deer habitat on the unit.

Keep the meat cool

After you harvest a deer or elk, don't hang it in a tree to try to cool the meat. The hot temperatures (especially during the archery hunts) can spoil it. Plus, hanging a deer or elk in a tree might draw bears into your campsite. Instead, cut the animal up in the field and remove the meat from the bone. After removing the meat, place it in a cooler.

"Dry ice can be used to cool the meat quickly and keep it cool for a prolonged period," Jones says. "You want to keep the meat as cool as possible until you can process it and get it into your freezer."

"Hunting should be fun, and you should enjoy it. It's a great time to see Utah's amazing wildlife and to make memories with your family and friends. Get outdoors this fall and have an adventure or two in our beautiful state."

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