Arrow-right Camera
Sports >  Outdoors

S-R Hunting Outlook 2020: Idaho elk, whitetails thrive; mule deer bouncing back

By Staff and wire reports

Deer and elk hunters should see plenty of game in Idaho during fall hunts as mild winters have helped mule deer herds hit hard in recent years to rebound, and elk herds continue to soar and harvests have come roaring back over the past six years.

Mule deer

In recent years, mule deer hunting has been on a downswing, but 2020 could shape up to be a momentum changer.

The three-year stretch of winters spanning from 2016-19 was tough on many of Idaho’s mule deer herds, largely due to poor-to-average fawn survival – including the second lowest on record in 2016-17 – and harvest numbers have reflected that.

In 2019, Idaho hunters harvested 23,679 mule deer, a one-year decrease of about 12%. It was the lowest total since 2011, and about 15% lower than the 10-year average. When you consider that about 80% of the mule deer in Idaho’s herds are between 1-3 years old, and take a look at the winter fawn survival numbers for the few years leading up to 2019, the dip in harvest was likely inevitable.

The good news for Idaho mule deer hunters is that the fawn survival data from last winter paints a brighter picture for 2020.

About 63% of radio-collared fawns survived last winter, the highest number in four years and above the 20-year average of 57%. Fish and Game reduces antlerless hunting opportunities to further protect breeding-age does and prime the state’s mule deer herds.

The indications are there will likely be more young bucks available for hunters to pursue this fall. In the grand scheme of 2020 hunting season, that could be significant, because yearling, or two-point bucks (which were born last year), typically make up a significant portion of the buck harvest.

All things considered, it will likely to be a good year for mule deer hunters – although they shouldn’t expect any harvest records to be broken in 2020.

While many of the mule deer herds are in better shape this year than they were in 2019, hunter congestion could prove to be more prevalent this year.

Because resident general deer tags are sold throughout the hunting season and unlimited for residents, it’s hard to project how many of resident hunters will be in the field come fall.

If the speed at which nonresident general deer tags sold out this year (two months sooner than they did in 2019) is any indication, deer hunter numbers could also be up this year after dropping a bit from 2018 to 2019.


Idaho elk hunters enjoyed another year of excellent hunting in 2019, harvesting 20,532 animals statewide. Elk hunters in 2020 can expect that trend to continue.

Fish and Game is meeting or exceeding its population goals for bull elk in 17 of 22 elk zones, and 16 out of 22 for cow elk. The statewide elk harvest has exceeded 20,000 annually for the past six years, which has not happened since the all-time high harvests between 1988-96.

As word has spread about the resurgence of elk hunting in Idaho, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of hunters, which have exceeded 100,000 annually over the last six years. The allotment of nonresident elk tags sold out by June 17 this year. It’s the fourth consecutive year that has occurred, and it’s happened earlier each year.

During 2019-20 winter, Fish and Game managers monitored 704 radio collared elk in various parts of the state. Adult cow survival was 97% and calf survival was 73% – up from the previous winter. The leading cause of mortality for elk calves was mountain lions, and for cow elk it was a tie between hunter harvest and mountain lions.

White-tailed deer

For Idaho whitetail hunting, it’s been so good for so long that good has become average.

When you look back since 2004, when Idaho’s deer harvest statistics were segregated between whitetails and mule deer, whitetails were a smaller portion of the statewide deer harvest with mule deer being the majority of deer taken by hunters.

But over the years, that proportion has shifted and whitetails represent nearly half of the statewide deer harvest, despite 90 percent of whitetail harvest coming out of just two regions: the Panhandle and Clearwater.

Hunters took 21,540 whitetails in 2019 and had a 38% success rate. Whitetail harvest was still below mule deer (23,679), but whitetail hunters’ success rates were nine points higher than mule deer hunters.

While 2019 whitetail harvest was down 14 percent from 2018 and the lowest since 2011, biologists said that’s likely a normal variation in annual harvests, not a sign of declining whitetail populations.

Whitetail hunters should expect good, or average, hunting in the state again in 2020. Winter weather was normal and there were no signs of excessive winter die off.

With a little help from the weather and plenty of hunters in the woods, there’s no reason the 2020 whitetails harvest can’t bounce right back to around the 10-year average of 24,568 white-tailed deer.

–Brian Pearson, IDFG Conservation Public Information Specialist

More information

Hunt details by game unit, harvest statistics, detailed maps of each unit, and hunt areas showing ownership and access can be found using Fish and Game’s Hunt Planner (

Panhandle Region

Deer: Whitetail hunters should be see the usual healthy herds of whitetailsin Panhandle. Fawn production and winter survival have been good the past two years, and the region has not had population setbacks in the recent years.

Unit 1, which encompasses the northern part of the state, was the top whitetail producer in 2019, and remains a perennial top deer producer that shows no signs of letting up. But it’s not alone as a top producer in the Panhandle. Units 2, 3, 5 and 6 were also in the top 10 for whitetails thanks to habitat and weather conditions that have been favorable for growing whitetails.

Whitetail hunters in the Panhandle have a long hunting season, generous either-sex hunting opportunities and a good chance to encounter mature bucks.

Elk: Numbers in the Panhandle also remain strong with Units 1 and 4 being among the top elk units in the state, and Panhandle units accounted for half of the top 10 elk units in the state with the Units 3, 6 and 5 joining Units 1 and 4.

With elk survival and production ranging from moderate to high, hunters will have plenty of elk to pursue in the Panhandle Region in 2020 and should have a good-to-excellent hunting there.

–Micah Ellstrom, IDFG Panhandle Regional Wildlife Manager

Clearwater Region

Deer: Herds appear in good shape due to a mild winter with mixed snow depths and much of it coming later in winter. Deer survival was good with no sign of excessive winter kill.

Hunters can expect to find plenty of white-tailed deer in the Clearwater Region and hunting similar to recent years. Units 10A and 8A were the second and third top whitetail producers last year, and are frequently in the top five in state.

With several mild-to-moderate winters in recent years, hunters should see a fair-to-good number of mature bucks.

Elk: Herds are stable in most of the region, and hunters will also see similar hunting to recent years, but there’s some signs of growing herds in the Selway and Lolo elk zones, but modest growth.

The Palouse, Dworshak and Hells Canyon zones continue to produce good elk hunting in the region. The Elk City Zone is seeing increased harvest in unit 14, but decreases in units 15 and 16, which is attracting more hunters into Unit 14.

–Clay Hickey, IDFG Clearwater Regional Wildlife Manager

Other big game

Visit the IDFG Big Game webpage ( for links to species-related sections for seasons, application dates, bag limits and other restrictions.

Small game

Hunting small game is a great way for beginners to get started, and some of the earliest fall hunting seasons present excellent opportunities for new hunters to develop their skills and confidence without breaking the bank.

Visit the IDFG small game webpage ( for links to species-related sections for seasons, application dates, bag limits and other restrictions.

Upland birds

Idaho is a big state with a diverse mix of habitats, elevations and climates, and the state contains a variety of upland game birds. Upland bird populations can vary tremendously on an annual basis, and their health and numbers typically depend on favorable weather conditions, which are often localized.

Idaho experienced cooler than normal temperatures in June statewide, along with higher than average rainfall. What does that mean for upland hunters? It’s a bit of a glass half empty/full situation.

“Cool and wet weather during the hatch is typically not a good indicator of strong numbers in the fall. In general, we’re crossing our fingers for good second nesting attempts,” said Jeff Knetter, Upland Game and Migratory Game Bird Coordinator.

Panhandle Region: Snowpack was about average to slightly above average which may have had a minimal effect on over winter survival. The summer has been relatively dry. Nesting success and survival appears to have been good. Pheasants, gray partridge and quail are uncommon and largely restricted to the southern portion of the region.

Details about the Panhandle Region:

Clearwater Region: The 2019-20 winter was relatively mild with above average temperatures and average to slightly above average precipitation levels cross the Clearwater region. During the spring 2020 nesting and early brood rearing period, weather conditions were cool and abnormally wet through spring and into the early summer, which can provide for excellent summer brood rearing habitat.

Details about the Clearwater Region:

Migratory birds

Idaho lies between the Pacific Flyway and the Central Flyway. In eastern and North Idaho, waterfowl hunters pull out their gear for the peak season in October and November.

This year, COVID-19 derailed the spring surveys that the USFWS uses to generate its Waterfowl Population Status Report, so IDFG wasn’t able to use that data for a 2020 forecast.

Beginning fall 2020, IDFG instituted a swan hunt in Benewah, Bonner, Boundary and Kootenai counties for the next three years. IDFG sold 50 swan tags starting Aug. 1 and is sold out for the 2020 hunting season.

Visit the IDFG migratory birds webpage ( for links to species-related sections for seasons, application dates, bag limits and other restrictions.

Subscribe to the sports newsletter

Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.