By JIM MATTHEWS www.OutdoorNewsService.com
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has dramatically reduced deer tag numbers in X9a, X9b, and X12 for the 2017 hunting season after 16 to 23 percent declines in these deer herds that live in the Eastern Sierra Nevada roughly from Bishop to Bridgeport. The reductions are for the general rifle hunts, the archery hunts, and the special late season and junior hunts in these deer zones.
The DFW said the population estimate for these three zones went from around 31,000 deer during 2016 surveys to just over 22,000 deer in surveys this year.
“That’s a pretty significant decline in the population,” said Stuart Itoga, deer program coordinator for the DFW. He also said that fawn survival was particularly troubling, with fawns making up just 26 percent of the Goodale herd and 28 percent of the herd in the Round Valley herd. Fawn survival was best in the Casa Diablo herd with nearly 50 percent of the herd consisting of fawns.
“Some of these migratory herds were hit real hard. It started snowing early and didn’t stop. We had significant mortality of both fawns and adults,” said Itoga.
Buck ratios also fell below the DFW management goals for these zones with the herds carrying from 19 to 23 bucks per 100 does. The DFW management objective is 35 bucks per 100 does.
For hunters hoping to draw a coveted Eastern Sierra tag for the 2017 season, the odds will be even tougher than most years. Here’s a summary of the hunts and their tag reductions.
— X9a will have 270 tags for 2017, down 380 tags from last year’s quota of 650.
— X9b will have 230 tags for 2017, down 95 tags from last year’s quota of 325.
— X12 will have 350 tags for 2017, down 330 tags from last year’s quota of 680.
— A16 (X9a archery) will have 30 tags, down 110 tags from the 140-tag quota last year.
— A17 (X9b archery) will have 210 tags, down 90 tags from the 300-tag quota last year.
— A18 (X12 archery) will have 40 tags, down 60 tags from the 100-tag quota last year.
— G3, the highly coveted late-season Goodale hunt will have 25 tags, down 10 tags from last year’s quota of 35 tags.
— G39, the even more coveted Round Valley late-season hunt will have just two tags in 2017, down from last year’s quota of five tags.
— J12, the special late-season junior hunt on the Round Valley herd, will have just three tags, down from the 10-tag quota in 2016.
In the past, the DFW would have probably kept tag numbers unchanged. The overall herd size is still well above the 25-year average and has been trending upward since 1997, according to the DFW abundance estimates for the Eastern Sierra management unit. The herd has been on a steady upward growth trend over the past six years, going from about 13,000 animals in 2010 to a modern high of 31,000 animals in 2015 and 2016.
Some deer hunters have questioned why now for a reduction in deer tags. Tag numbers have been at the same levels or higher when the deer herd was much smaller than it is today. For example, in 2013 ñ when the population estimate was just under 20,000 deer ñ tag numbers were 650 for X9a, 325 for X9b, and 680 for X12 general rifle seasons. Going back even further, in 1993, when the deer herd was around 15,000 animals, the tag quotas were 1,100 for X9a, 300 for X9b, and 1,500 for X12. But that was back when the DFW was managing for lower buck-doe ratios. During that period there were only 14 bucks per 100 does in X9a, 40 per 100 in X9b (which had a lower tag quota back then), and 12 per 100 in X12.
In the 1980s, when X9 consisted of X9a, X9b, X9c, and X12, the tag quota for this zone was 15,000 tags. It wasn’t until 1985 when X12 was split from the X9s and the quota was 3,000 for X12 and 9,000 for the X9 zone. It wasn’t until 1987 that X9 was split into X9a and X9b, but X9c was a part of D17 at that time and had been since 1986. Buck ratios for these herds during this era were sometimes at 10 bucks per 100 does or lower on some herd units. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the zones took their current shape and tag quotas declined to boost buck ratios and improve the quality of hunting. Seasons and tag numbers stayed pretty the same as they were last year for the past 20 years.
The 2017 tag reductions in the Eastern Sierra are mostly about increasing buck-to-doe ratios so the quality of these hunts in future years stays high. Buck ratios have been declining in recent years, and the addition of winter kill this year made the problem worse.
“We ran our model and decided maintaining tag numbers could have a significant negative impact on these herds’ [buck ratios],” said Itoga.
DFW data shows that the Eastern Sierra deer herd is capable of growing by 8,000 animals in one year, enough to make up for what it lost this winter. Between 2011 and 2012, the herd grew from about 12,500 animals to 20,500 deer. Similar growth this year would put the herds in the Eastern Sierra back at modern highs, and reduced tag numbers should bump buck ratios back up to near DFW goals.