Utah wildlife biologists are seeking a reduction in general-season deer hunting permits for the fifth straight year; however, there are signs that the struggling species is improving as the statewide drought weakens.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources unveiled its 2023 hunting permit recommendations on Tuesday, which call for 71,600 general season buck deer permits this fall — 1,475 fewer than were issued last year. It comes as Utah's deer population remains tens of thousands shy of the state's goal of 404,900 overall.

"The way we hunt buck deer in Utah doesn't drive deer populations, but what happens with deer populations drives how we hunt buck deer," said Dax Mangus, the division's big game coordinator, in a statement.

The division is also seeking a general increase in elk hunting permits as a result of a new management plan for the species in the state, among other permit requests. The Utah Wildlife Board is set to vote on the final number of big game hunting permits next month.

Addressing Utah's deer

Utah wildlife officials say there are an estimated 335,000 deer, up nearly 30,000 from an estimate unveiled in late March 2022 but still about 70,000 below the state's population objective. The state's long-term drought is a major reason for the decline after deer populations had finally neared the goal of over 400,000 deer.

However, a shift in precipitation between December 2021 and December 2022 made a big difference in reversing the downward trend.

"Our statewide deer population actually grew about 10%," Mangus said in a video explaining the permit change proposal. "Late summer-early fall monsoon moisture patterns that we've seen have been really beneficial and helped deer."

But the recommendations are based on a formula of variables to come up with a preferred hunting permit figure, not just the current deer population. He explained that cutting buck permits isn't a "silver bullet" in population growth. Instead, other factors like buck-to-doe ratios, fawn production, as well as doe and fawn survival rates after the winter help determine the permit amount for a season.

These factors were trending in the right direction when data was collected in December. However, the same precipitation helping deer populations recover for the first time in a few years is likely going to impact survival rates in some parts of the state.

Some herds are expected to struggle with this year's record snowpack impacting their primary habitat. This is a major reason why the division announced Monday that it will keep 24 wildlife management areas in central and northern Utah closed through the end of April, so wintering deer and other big game animals aren't disturbed during a pivotal time in the year.

"There is such a thing as too much of a good thing," Mangus said. "We anticipate to see some declines this year in units in the northern part of the state. But we also do anticipate to see some growth in the southern part."

Adding all these factors together, the division came up with a recommendation of 71,600 general season buck permits for this season.

About all of the decreases would be in the division's northern and northeast regions, where populations have struggled the most with snow. The division is requesting a reduction of about 4,800 permits in northern Utah and a decrease of another 1,000 in northeast Utah this year.

It's also requesting that 3,275 permits be added to southern Utah, which had lost permit totals over the past few years. It's also seeking 450 more permits in southeast Utah, as well as 600 more in central Utah.

Utah does offer more than just the standard general season buck deer hunt. The division is requesting 1,305 limited-entry deer permits this year, which would be an increase of 40 permits. It is also seeking to set aside 530 antlerless deer permits, down from 635 last year.

Other big game hunting permit changes

Elk are a different story, as populations remain nearly 3,000 above the state's objective of 80,000 in the state. Wildlife biologists explain that elk are far less influenced by drought or winter conditions than deer, which is why they are thriving.

State wildlife officials are seeking 15,000 general season any elk hunting permits for adults, while there's an unlimited amount of permits for youth hunters, as well as archery and late hunt permits. These changes are based on a new statewide management plan adopted late last year. The state set aside 17,500 permits altogether in this category last year.

The division is also proposing that general season spike bull elk hunts remain at 15,000 permits, though this year would include a new cap of 4,500 multiseason permits. There would also be 19,857 antlerless elk permits, up 2,749 permits from 2022. The youth draw-only any bull elk permit would remain at 500 permits, while there would also be 3,336 limited-entry bull elk permits in 2023.

Other big game permit proposals for the hunting season include:

  • 75 desert bighorn sheep permits (up four from 2022)
  • 52 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep permits (down five from 2022)
  • 5 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep ewe permits (the same as 2022)
  • 177 bison permits (up 19 from 2022)
  • 102 bull moose permits (down three from 2022)
  • 9 antlerless moose permits (half of 2022's amount)
  • 96 mountain goat permits (down seven from 2022)
  • 1,372 buck pronghorn permits (up 123 from 2022)
  • 155 doe pronghorn permits (down 123 from 2022)

The division is also seeking some rule changes, including clarifications on the technology used in hunting.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is accepting public comment on the proposed changes leading up to a Utah Wildlife Board meeting on May 4. More information about the proposed changes can be found on the division's website, which is also where public comments can be submitted.

Utahns have until 11:59 p.m. on April 25 to provide input on the plan ahead of the May 4 vote.