The news over the next couple months will be headlined by drought and fire. This situation has been brought about by below average precipitation and above average temperatures. Utah is in bad shape with 98% of the state in extreme drought while 22% of Idaho is in a similar condition.
The lack of spring rains combined with above average temperatures are a recipe for a bad fire season. It is only the middle of July and smoke is pervasive in valleys from southern Utah to northern Idaho. In many situations’ fires aren’t bad for wildland ecosystems but they are a challenge to human health and infrastructure.
From a hunting perspective, there will likely be several fires still burning in Idaho and Utah when the big game bow and muzzleloader seasons start. This means you will have to pay attention to where fires have and are burning as public land managers may close certain areas. Even if an area is reopened, the habitat you normally hunt may have burned.
Both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have good web sites (with a little searching) that provide an understanding of the current fire conditions, which roads are closed, and what basins have burned. These sites need to be explored as hunting season nears.
Fishing has started to be affected by the drought as reservoir and stream levels drop. Several lakes and streams across Utah have seen their regulations relaxed. This includes the Blacksmith Fork River from the Nibley Diversion downstream to the confluence with the Logan River where the trout limit is now eight rather than four. There will likely be additional changes in regulations as the summer progresses, especially across southern Idaho. Many lakes in this region were built to serve irrigators rather than anglers so their water levels can get so low they no longer are habitable by fish.
As water temperatures warm, it is important to land fish as fast as possible. Trout quickly caught and released in cold waters (<60F) have very low (<10%) delayed mortality. Taking a long time to land a trout in warm water (>70F) can result in high delayed mortality (≈40%). Managers in Oregon and Montana account for these relationships and are currently implementing afternoon fishing closures in many streams as temperatures rise.
Reduced water levels in reservoirs is making launching and using boats more difficult. At Willard Bay the northern access has a reduced capacity to launch boats and Newton Reservoir requires boats to travel at wakeless speeds. These difficulties are causing crowding in lakes that can handle bigger boats. The high afternoon temperatures can make the beaches of Bear Lake and First Dam more attractive than fishing in an open boat.
Droughts can have a direct effect on game species. There is evidence it can reduce pheasant reproductive success as farm management and crop production is altered during drought. Dry conditions may be beneficial for chukar and forest grouse, as the lack of spring rains can increase chick survival. The exact effect on any bird population will still be influenced by the availability of local water sources.
The effect of dry conditions on deer is more complex. Drought has a minimal effect on migratory animals with access to high mountain vegetation. This is in contrast to the negative effects on resident deer populations in desert areas. This pattern suggests deer herds in southern Utah will continue to see challenging conditions as herds in Northern Utah and Southeast Idaho remain stable or slowly grow.
Waterfowl hunters are affected by drought in two ways; water is necessary in the northern breeding grounds to produce ducks and geese while water in the region is necessary for hunting. Southern Canada (especially Alberta) and the Dakotas are in a drought which does not bode well for the fall migration. The question then becomes how much water will there be for hunters. Most of the state and federal waterfowl hunting areas will still be full as agricultural demand for water lessens during the fall. What will be a concern is the Great Salt Lake will hit its historic low sometime this summer. Fewer salt marshes may give ducks and geese less reason to stay in the region during the hunting season.
Like all years, hunters and anglers will have to adapt to these new conditions. This year may take a bit more scouting, hunting a few new areas and trying new techniques. Be vigilant when you are out in the woods this summer and early fall. Remember to carry plenty of water (especially when hunting with a dog) and be careful with fire.