Looking for a Big Buck? Look West

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It's no secret that the West is home to some whomper bucks, like this one captured on a game camera by Keith Miller of Montana Whitetails, north of Bozeman last month. Mule deer still dominate the dry landscapes of the West, and that's not likely to change soon, but whitetails have expanded their range and now occupy riparian habitats, agricultural lands and low and mid-elevation forests across much of the Northern Rockies.

Even without game cameras, bucks are generally more visible during summer than at any time, except for the madness of their rut. With sleek summer coats and rapidly growing velveted antlers, bucks seek open spaces to avoid damaging their headgear and tolerate the presence of other bucks, sometimes even forming bachelor groups like the one my wife and I saw near St. Regis, Montana, this summer. Three tall-racked trophy bucks ate green apples along the road to the St. Joe River.

But now, as summer fades toward autumn, the bachelor party is over, and bucks are melting back into the landscape where they'll remain mostly hidden until hormones swell their necks and drive them to fight the same bucks they fed with only months earlier. Their intolerance for each other lasts from the shedding of their velvet until the shedding of their antlers.

Whitetails do not always garner the same attention as elk and mule deer out West, but they are nonetheless a fixture on the landscape and on dinner tables and folks' walls. For 2012, state game managers from Colorado to Washington State offer mostly rosy prognoses for whitetail herds and this autumn's deer seasons. Here's a rundown, moving from east to west.

Colorado
Mule deer rule in the Centennial State, comprising about 95% of the state's total deer population, but whitetails have flourished in Colorado's northeast and southeast corners, existing in close proximity to river bottoms and farmlands. Southeast Colorado offers opportunities for the state's biggest whitetail bucks, but Colorado Division of Wildlife's Andy Holland says don't overlook the northeast corner, where whitetails are numerous, so much so that the state intentionally pressures the herds to reduce competition with mule deer. Holland cites high elevation, heavy snow loads, and dry climates as key factors inhibiting further whitetail expansion westward.

Wyoming
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department seems excited to get out the word: whitetails are booming in their preferred habitats and have expanded west across the state, following river corridors. The highest concentrations still exist in Eastern Wyoming, from the Bighorn Mountain foothills to the Black Hills to the North Platte and other river corridors. Whitetails have also expanded their range dramatically over the past few decades, moving west into Wind River Country and the Bighorn Basin. Where one finds riparian habitat and agriculture in close proximity, one is increasingly likely these days to find Wyoming whitetails.

Montana
Big Sky Country has earned a reputation as the West's number one producer of big bucks, and the odds of bagging a trophy, especially on private lands, are still excellent across much of the state despite herd declines after harsh winters. Eastern Montana, Regions 6 & 7, were hit the hardest, according to wildlife official Quentin Kujala. He describes those populations as significantly decreased. Whitetails are widely distributed, however, and news gets better the further one looks West within the huge state. Kujala notes that Central Montana, Regions 3 & 4, saw slight decreases in whitetails, but that populations are still healthy. In the Northwest Corner, where populations were significantly decreased after the winters of 2008 and 2009, biologists now see the beginnings of a sharp rebound, due to successive mild winters and a favorable spring.

Idaho
Whitetails have moved into parts of Southern Idaho, but their stronghold and the biggest bucks in the state can be found in North Idaho. Known for producing deer pushing 200 inches, Idaho rivals Montana and boasts a seven-week season. Buck escapement is high in North Idaho due to low human population, light hunting pressure and heavy cover. According to Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Panhandle Game Manager, Jim Hayden, hunters harvest only 12% of the total buck population. He says many bucks grow to very old ages in North Idaho, one reason hunters score on some impressive trophies. Overall, Hayden says populations in North Idaho are good and rebounding from a slight dip after rough winters. Due to heavy cover across the Panhandle, hunter success spikes are especially sharply during the Late November rut.

Oregon
The Beaver State has long been home to the Columbian white-tailed deer, a small subspecies that went under federal protection in 1978. The deer was taken off of the Endangered Species List in part of its range (Umpqua River Basin) in 2003. After listing and a subsequent hunting moratorium, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is again offering limited hunting opportunities for Columbian whitetails in their delisted range. Probably of more interest to most serious whitetail hunters is the colonization of Northeast Oregon via Idaho and Southeast Washington's Blue Mountains foothills. According to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Pat Matthews, whitetails have very quickly expanded in numbers throughout Northeast Oregon wherever habitat has allowed. On an early spring 2012 drive from Pendleton, Oregon, to Hells Canyon's Imnaha River, a trek that follows several river courses, I saw hundreds of whitetails on winter range.

Washington
Northeast Washington is the epicenter of Washington whitetails, and populations appear to be rebounding nicely after devastating winters in 2008 and 2009, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist and ungulate researcher Woody Myers. Populations in Ferry, Stevens, and Pend Oreille Counties were knocked back at least 50% after two long winters with heavy snow loads. Now, after two mild winters and two wet springs that provided excellent nutrition for rearing fawns, Myers says researchers working with him on a whitetail study noted almost all of the does they handled this winter were pregnant, and now they're observing lots of does with fawns. Whitetails also exist in strong numbers south across the Palouse and into the Blue Mountains, where populations are increasing. A combination of agriculture and regenerating forests that were burned in massive 2005 wildfires form ideal habitat for whitetails, especially on the Tucannon River and around the town of Dayton. Whitetails have also spread west to live in localized populations near Tri-Cities and Yakima and in the Okanogan.

The river bottoms, farmlands, and woods of the West are home to some big-bodied trophy whitetails, and Jeff Holmes knows them well. A university faculty member and a lifelong whitetail hunter, Holmes is lead contributing writer for Northwest Sportsman Magazine and writes for many other outdoor publications. States covered: WA, OR, ID, MT, WY, CO