DEER PARK, Wash. — It wasn't clear last month why some hunters were driving past the highway check station marked by big fluorescent orange signs while others willingly stopped and shared the information of their hunt with Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologists.
Sometimes hunter behavior is as mysterious as the ways of secretive whitetail bucks.
"Some people don't think it's important and others are just in a hurry, I guess," said Dana Base at the U.S. 395 hunter check station north of Deer Park on Oct. 20. "But every little bit of information we get from the animals hunters bring in is valuable in managing our wildlife," he said.
"Even the information we get from unsuccessful hunters is valuable," said the state's district wildlife biologist based in Colville. "We don't ask personal information about their specific hunting areas."
Hunter check stations were staffed near Deer Park and on Highway 2 near Chattaroy on the last weekend of the general deer season in October.
The stations will be open again next weekend for the end of northeastern Washington's late whitetail buck season.
Three wildlife students from Washington State University joined the check station staff at Chattaroy in October for hands-on schooling on skills such as measuring antlers, aging deer and taking tooth and tissue samples.
Several hunters who came through the station asked questions on topics ranging from wildlife populations to hunting laws. And they got answers.
"A lot of education goes on here, both ways," said Greg Koehn, a hunter education instructor from Newport who was volunteering even more of his time to help out at the check station.
In Idaho, hunters — as well as anglers — can be fined for driving past a sportsman's check station. But Washington no longer requires hunters to stop at points labeled as voluntary biological check stations.
"We're all about data and education, not enforcement," said Tom Higgins, another long-time hunter education instructor assisting the biologists.
The number of hunters stopping at the northeastern Washington check stations in the past 12 years peaked at 996 in 2006. The number declined to 723 in 2010 after the deer herds were devastated by the tough winters of 2007 and 2008.
However, the number of hunters at the check stations plummeted to 408 in 2011 as a four-point minimum requirement was enacted for taking whitetail bucks in units 117 and 121 in Pend Oreille and Stevens counties.
The check stations are helping monitor hunting trends.
For example, while the number of hunters is down the number of bucks being harvested is increasing — and a higher percentage of them are older-class bucks, Base said.
"But we're getting more information than that," he said, pointing to a spreadsheet with data collected on yearling antler growth and other details.
"Lush alfalfa is the bulk of the nutrition for many bucks, but how do they compare with the hardscrabble bucks that eke out most of their existence higher on national forests?"
A man came in with a spike buck — a male yearling — and immediately began making excuses for why he didn't shoot a bigger branch-antlered buck.
"It's the smallest buck I've ever shot," he said, as though his ego was fractured by people measuring the six-inch prongs on the head of his deer.
The helpers assured him that wildlife management science needs data from deer of all ages. "And this one will be delicious," one helper noted.
The data is used in all sorts of ways to help solve wildlife management issues from hunting seasons to habitat improvements. They index deer population condition by measuring yearling antler circumference, number of points and inside antler spread.
"Statistically, a fawn is the best deer for a hunter to harvest (in terms of impact to the herd)," Base said.
"Fawns have the lowest natural survival rates next to the old gummers," he said.
Realizing that most hunters won't shoot fawns, he simply pointed out that among age classes of deer, a higher percentage of fawns will die in their first year regardless of whether they're killed by a hunter.
"We also get information about other species," said wildlife biologist Annemarie Prince.
"I've been asking hunters if they've observed any moose and informing them that we have a moose study coming up."
The biologists and volunteers asked hunters whether they'd seen wolf sign or any unusual wildlife sightings.
They collected information from hunters who'd killed cougars, bobcats, black bears, turkeys and grouse.
As several rigs with hunters drove past the Highway 395 check station, Erin and Matt Van Horn of Shelton stopped in with their two small boys just before the Deer Park helpers closed.
"We made a weekend of it, but she was the only one who got her buck," said Matt, pointing to Erin, who was showing her deer to the volunteers.
This is where scientists and hunters interact for the good of the game, Base said.
"The hunters keep us grounded," he said, noting several stories he'd heard at the check station. One of his favorites involved a trophy-hunting bear that raided the back of a pickup one night in a camp. The next morning, tracks revealed that the bear had ignored the easy meal of game meat in the truck, but packed away the antlered heads of two nice whitetail bucks.
"Maybe someday we'll have the data to explain that one," Base said.
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