YAKIMA, Wash. -- This fall’s elk season brings more bad news for Yakima-area hunters after last year’s historically low returns while population numbers remained low.

When the early archery season opens this Saturday for many areas across the state, many of the best parts of Yakima and Kittitas County will remain closed thanks to a new rule aimed at protecting the dwindling herds. Regional wildlife program manager Scott McCorquodale of Washington Fish and wildlife said the agency considered putting archers in the permit category and decided it was necessary to shorten the season to six days.

“There were a lot of people that weren’t happy about the opportunity going down,” McCorquodale said. “But that just reflected the information we had about the current state of the elk population.”

A relatively mild winter didn’t allow for precise population surveys, since the Oak Creek feeding station never needed to put out hay with elk staying at higher elevations. But lower than expected calf ratios of 3,900 elk on or near other feed sites led to an estimate of 8,300 animals in the herd, around the same as last year and well below the objective of 9,500.

The smaller Colockum herd fell by nearly 400 to 4,289, compared to 6,000 just a few years ago. That’s still within range of the objective of 4,500, and McCorquodale’s not overly concerned about the district’s falling populations.

“If you look at it historically, this is sort of a cyclic thing,” McCorquodale said. “It happens occasionally. We been in a cycle up to a couple years ago that was pretty good.”

He’s hopeful increased efforts to limit hunting will be temporary, and a slight rise in calf recruitment offers some reason for optimism. Rachel Voss, the state chair of the Mule Deer Foundation and avid hunter in Yakima County, understands the frustration of her fellow hunters but said they need to be patient and realize this will be a long-term recovery process.

Local wildlife department biologist Jeff Bernatowicz calculates how many bulls he believes can be harvested each year, which determines the number of permits issued for branched bulls. This year his numbers went down considerably in several areas.

No region saw a drop of more than 10 elk last season, but this fall’s numbers fell by more than 30 in four of the district’s 11 “hunt areas,” including from 90 to 30 in Peaches Ridge and 80 to 30 in Goose Prairie. Bernatowicz said in an email local herd populations aren’t likely to increase in the near future, since he expects antlerless harvest to come close to matching the annual increase in the cow population.

“Due to low total elk numbers, recruitment is low,” Bernatowicz said. “To rebuild production, the adult cow population needs to increase. To do that, you need to dramatically reduce antlerless harvest.”

Last year the 754 antlerless elk taken by hunters far surpassed the estimated 587 yearling cows in the district, which translates to a net loss. A declining young bull population due to drought followed by a harsh winter in 2015 led to the lowest number of spike bulls harvested in the muzzleloader and firearm seasons since records began in 1986, according to Bernatowicz.

Overall, hunters took only 928 total elk in the district, nearly 300 fewer than the previous year and the lowest number since at least 2007. Archers found a success rate of almost 10 percent, compared to just three percent for hunters in the muzzleloader and modern firearms seasons.

The shortened early archery season should make that discrepancy smaller, but Bernatowicz anticipates archers will post the highest success rates once again in what remains one of the state’s best elk hunting districts. Only the Mt. St. Helens herd in the district including Lewis, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties in southwest Washington yielded more elk in last year’s harvest.

McCorquodale said the district remains popular and as usual, hunters can give themselves a better chance by going higher up into the mountains and getting away from the roads, especially later in the season. By sticking around longer or starting later they might even encounter less competition, since Bernatowicz said recent trends show many hunters head home early.

Deer decline continues

The same problems facing elk may be worse for Yakima County’s deer, which had already been struggling much more prior to recent trends.

Hunters successfully took less than 500 bucks last year, 250 fewer than the year before and the lowest numbers in recorded history, according to Bernatowicz. He doesn’t expect any sort of rebound after the third straight year of decline, and hunters have begun to leave as well.

They achieved a success rate of just five percent last season, compared to a statewide average of 23 percent. Voss said a variety of factors contributed to the departure of deer from the area, which brought a harvest of more than 1,000 as recently as 2014.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that the mule deer is one of the big game animals suffering the largest decline,” Voss said. “Unfortunately, the predators, especially cougars are causing problems in Yakima County.”

Her organization and others have worked to restore habitat, and she said ongoing studies, especially those by the Muckleshoot tribe should provide a clearer picture of what’s needed for recovery. Voss said once heavily populated areas like the Little Naches desperately need prescribed fire to reduce overgrown forests, and McCorquodale said even unintentional, dangerous wildfires should bring positive effects in the long-term for deer and elk.

Bernatowicz recommends hunters look for deer at higher elevations, in areas such as the Manastash and Umtanum near Ellensburg, as well as the Teanaway north of Cle Elum. Voss said despite all the threats plaguing the county’s deer, hunters shouldn’t give up just yet.

“We certainly don’t have the large monsters like we do in other areas and other (game management units) in the state,” Voss said. “But there’s legal deer in Yakima County. You just have to stick with it.”