The Western U.S. Hunting Climate
By Dan Carlson
Weather is arguably the single biggest influencer on hunting success or failure. In the short term, it determines how we dress for a hunt, what gear we’ll take along, where we’ll choose to hunt, and even whether or not we even can hunt. Even the most prepared hunters would be foolish to venture out into a blizzard to fill a tag on opening day. But weather has already been at work this year to affect the outcome of our hunting experience this fall. From late-winter snows to spring and summer thunderstorms, the moisture die has been cast to determine where browse will be plentiful and where it will be scarce. The overall long-term weather patterns have been setting up to reveal which areas will have early or late snow, and if cold winter temperatures will arrive early or late.
This is my 40th year working in meteorology. After 20 years in broadcast meteorology, I spent eight in forensic meteorology and two in fire meteorology before working at Cabela’s headquarters for a decade providing long-range weather outlooks and short-term weather threat analysis to help guide decisions about what hunting and fishing gear would be needed where on a seasonal basis. As an avid hunter and angler, I understand the importance and impact of timely weather information on outdoor recreation. I also authored a book in 2008 called “Trophy Bucks in Any Weather” to explain how weather influences big-game animal behavior.
The purpose of this article, which I wrote in June of this year, is to set the table with the meteorological and climatological “lay of the land” as we enter fall hunting seasons in the U.S. Information was gathered from multiple U.S. and global weather agencies to ascertain what hunters may encounter in the field this fall as a result of weather across the U.S. over the last several months, and probability that the pattern will shift into a La Nina configuration during the fall.
La Nina, defined as abnormally cool water dominating the equatorial east Pacific Ocean, tends to position an upper-atmosphere high pressure ridge over the American West. The result is warmer-than-average temperatures and below-average precipitation in areas beneath the ridge. I foresee initially a low-amplitude ridge when hunting seasons begin, which would mean potential for a wetter-than-average fall in parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana, with above-average temperatures across the entire West.
Montana: If you’ve drawn a Montana tag, you’re fortunate. From a water and browse standpoint, Montana is faring better than most other western states this year. Rainfall in most drainages and basins is near or a little bit above where it was last year. But the forecast calls for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation through August across the state.
The areas drying out the fastest are in the southern part of Montana extending from Custer National Forest in the southeast, west through Gallatin National Forest north of Yellowstone, to Beaverhead National Forest in the southwest. These areas along and south of Interstate 90 will be the driest parts of the state. Fortunately, browse conditions entering the critical antler-growing period were still pretty good across most of Montana, so there should be no shortage of decent bucks and bulls to harvest this year.
The most promising areas of Montana where a combination of snow and rain during the first half of the year combined with fewer temperature extremes to allow for decent water supplies and favorable browse were those from Bitterroot National Forest northwest along the Idaho border to Canada. But above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall are forecast for these same areas into fall. This means decent browse and water supplies will be less plentiful by the time bow season begins.
Hunters may want to mark some larger watering holes in June and check on them as summer progresses. What looks like a decent-sized pond mid-summer may be reduced to a wallow in the lower elevations, and will be likely holding much less water by September. What may look like a promising wallow or smaller watering area in July could be dried up by October with no reason for game to hang around it. Remember not to plan for where the game is, but where it will be.
Rain and snow should increase in western Montana as the fall progresses. Late season hunters in the western mountains of the state should be ready for potentially heavy rain or early snow as the season progresses there.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: near the border with Idaho.
Idaho: The first half of the year was seasonably warm in Idaho, but May saw a big uptick in precipitation north of the Salmon River. Precipitation was well above average in most counties bordering Washington during May, and that had a very favorable impact on vegetation and browse. But conditions aren’t as rosy in other parts of the state.
Central Idaho started the summer classified as being in severe drought and it’s only going to get worse heading into fall. Particularly dry were areas in Blaine, Camas and southern Custer Counties where forests could be in extreme drought by hunting season. The area of abnormally dry conditions is forecast to expand westward across northern Elmore, Boise, Gem, Payette, Washington and southern Valley Counties as summer progresses. Animals stressed by excessive heat and dry conditions will increasingly either move out of these areas due to competition for limited food and water resources, or move closer to manmade options in the form of stock ponds, crop fields and irrigated farmland. Seeing as these areas entered peak antler-growth challenged in the food and water categories, trophy production may not be as good in central and southern Idaho as in other parts of the state.
Southwest and south-central Idaho are forecast to be dry as well this summer with above-average temperatures. Affected areas will be south of the Salmon River and west of a line from Gilmore in Lemhi County to Stone in Oneida County. But drought is not expected east of that line to the Wyoming border. Browse and water resources will be increasingly more abundant the closer one gets to the Idaho/Wyoming border and hunting should be quite good this fall in the fertile farmland areas of eastern Idaho.
Even though the outlook for the Idaho Panhandle, areas I consider to be north of the Salmon River, is for temperatures to be much higher than normal with below-average summer rain, this area is entered the dry summer months in much better condition that the rest of Idaho. With better browse and water, I fully expect some splendid trophies to be taken in northern Idaho this fall.
With La Nina developing in the Pacific, watch for increasing rain and snow across Idaho as hunting seasons progress. Heavy precipitation may not be a major concern in September, but be sure to keep abreast of conditions for possible rapid changes October through December.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: the Idaho Panhandle.
Washington: Much of the central part of the state is in drought conditions, and they’re expected to worsen there as we move into fall hunting seasons. It’s not unusual for the Cascade Mountains to wring out the onshore moisture flow from the Pacific, but indications are the precipitation deficit now seen between the Cascades and Columbia River will get worse. That’s because long-range forecasters are predicting below-average rainfall for the entire state of Washington through summer’s end, and temperatures statewide are forecast to be well above average.
While this doesn’t look good as far as having abundant, nutrient-rich browse available for game, there may be some bright spots. The National Center for Environmental Prediction believes the Cascade Mountains and Olympic Peninsula will fare better than the rest of Washington in terms of precipitation. Temperatures at those locations are still forecast to be above average into September, but remember they are among the wettest locations in the U.S. so even below-average rainfall can still mean quite a bit of rain. From a weather and climate standpoint, anywhere north of a line from Aberdeen to Yakima and west of a line from Goldendale to Oroville holds promise for hunters.
Dry conditions in place east of the Cascades are predicted to get even drier. But we must also remember that game in these areas is accustomed to semi-arid conditions and can adapt. We may see increased presence of game on private land as bow season arrives because deer and other animals will gravitate toward crops and irrigated land as drought intensifies.
With odds favoring a La Nina event forming in the Pacific this fall, rain and snow will be on the increase across Washington during hunting seasons. The precipitation will be too late to impact the status of browse for game during prime antler-growing weeks, but weather could mess up your hunt if you’re not ready for it. Keep a close eye out for rapidly changing conditions, especially west of the Cascades in September and statewide October through December.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: in and west of the Cascade Mountains.
Oregon: Based on recent weather and predicted conditions, Oregon’s situation is not encouraging for those seeking huge bulls and bucks this year. The challenge is ongoing drought across the state with little hope of improvement before hunting seasons begin. Much of the state’s drought is classified as moderate to severe, and extreme drought conditions exist in portions of Sherman, Gilliam, Wheeler, Jefferson, Deschutes, Coos, Curry, Josephine and Jackson Counties. The counties that have fared best in terms of moisture this year are Wallowa, Union and Umatilla Counties in the northeast part of the state.
With abnormally dry and hot conditions forecast through the end of summer, nutritious browse for game will become increasingly scarce. The combination of high temperatures, low precipitation and low food nutrients will likely interfere with antler growth. Wetter weather is expected in the fall, but it won’t come fast enough to improve the hunting outlook much. Hunters able to do so may want to focus efforts on Wallowa County or private lands where game has access to food and water elsewhere in Oregon. Public lands bordering the east-facing slopes of the Cascade Mountains and in the southwest corner of Oregon will likely be least productive. Watch for rain and snow to increase statewide as seasons progress.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: Wallowa, Union and eastern Umatilla Counties.
California: The state started summer with drought conditions north of a line from San Luis Obispo to Bakersfield to Death Valley. Areas south of that line had average soil moisture. The area hit hardest by drought was west of the Sacramento River and north of a line from San Francisco to Sacramento. Extreme drought conditions existed in much of Siskiyou County and northern Trinity County.
Hot and dry weather is forecast to continue across California through summer. Browse for game will become increasingly scarce, especially in northern California. A couple of places for hunters to focus on for big game would be National Forest land in southern California and mountains east of the Central Valley and south of Reno, Nevada. What will likely end up being even better is private farmland with food and water resources accessible to game in these areas. Northern California will likely be least productive for trophies given already severe to extreme drought with worsening conditions expected until fall. By late September precipitation in counties bordering Oregon may be on the increase, but it will come too late to impact game animals before hunting season.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: southern third of the state near water.
Nevada: Known largely as an arid state, Nevada is living up to that reputation with all but the southeast experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Portions of central Nevada are classified as being in severe drought including Churchill, south halves of Pershing, Lander and Eureka Counties, western White Pine and northern Nye Counties. These will be the areas in which lack of water and a shortage of nutrition could hamper horn and antler growth through the summer and into fall.
Areas still classified as dry but with a better water and browse situation are western Washoe County along the California border, far northeast Elko County bordering Utah and Idaho, the southern third of Nye and Lincoln Counties, and Clark County in the Southeast. Hunters with the option to do so may want to concentrate on these areas.
Fortunately, wildlife in Nevada has grown somewhat accustomed to its feast-or-famine rainfall situation and has either adapted or knows where to go for food and water. Among places I’d suggest to scout are National Forest land around Charleston Park east of Pahrump; areas north of I-80 and east of Highway 93 in northeastern Nevada; and Clark County east of I-15. These are parts of the state least impacted by severe drought so far this year. If they can avoid things getting worse, there may be a wall-hanger or two in these areas.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: Toiyabe National Forest near Charleston Park.
Arizona: Arizona is dry this summer, but as of the solstice the only areas classified as being under severe drought were in northcentral and northeast Arizona east of Highway 89, north of I-40 and west of Highway 191. Most of this area is Native American land.
The weather outlook for Arizona could be better. If La Nina gets set up in the Pacific by October, hunting seasons in Arizona this year will be getting increasingly dry heading into fall. But some weather models are hinting at formation of a monsoonal flow of moisture into the state in late July or early August. That’s a hit or miss proposition but if it does occur, a prolonged flow of atmospheric moisture would feed showers and thunderstorms all along a swath from west of Tucson all the way to southern Colorado. Such a development could halt the progression of drought in the state temporarily.
Some areas with better water and browse available for animals would be Shivwits and Kaibab Plateaus in northwest Arizona; forested areas between Prescott and Lake Havasu City in west-central Arizona; and southeast Arizona south of I-10 and east of I-19. If you have tags for these areas, start scouting early to get a feel for the watering and feeding patterns of game in the area.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: north of I-40 and west of Highway 89.
New Mexico: Here’s a state where pre-season weather intelligence can make or break your hunt this fall. The situation in counties bordering Colorado is grave with all reporting extreme drought conditions. That contrasts sharply with the southwest quarter of the state where conditions range from average to abnormally dry (but not yet drought). And long-range forecast models expect little relief for New Mexico before hunting season. In fact, they show areas now relatively unaffected entering drought by mid-August.
With antler growth rates now peaking, we need to look at where there’s sufficient nutrition and water for decent horn growth. The only area I see that in is southwest New Mexico west of I-25 and south of Highway 60. This area includes Gila National Forest, Cibola National Forest and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest so there’s a lot of good habitat. In contrast, areas north of line from Farmington to Taos and east of a line from Taos to Santa Rosa to Roswell and Carlsbad are severely dry with little rain in the forecast through the fall. Not only are they not conducive to antler growth and animal health, but will also likely be under high fire danger when hunting seasons begin. Spot and stalk hunting in northern and eastern New Mexico this fall will be like walking on cornflakes, making stealth nearly impossible.
But there is one possible chance for hunting success in dry areas. Those who own land or have a lease will want to take all legal measures possible to set up feeders and watering stations on the land. Any game in the area will be so eager to find feed and water they’ll flock to it wherever they can find it. Note feed must be removed a minimum of 10 days before hunting an area otherwise it’s considered baiting.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: south of Highway 60 and west of I-25.
Utah: Most of the state is abnormally dry or in drought conditions with one exception – the far northeast corner including northern Uinta and Daggett Counties. Areas west of I-15 and east of Great Salt Lake to the north of Salt Lake City are in severe drought, as are areas south of Great Salt Lake and west of I-15 from Salt Lake City to Fillmore. Areas along and east of the Colorado River in Utah are also in severe drought.
The rain forecast for Utah is not promising. If La Nina develops in the Pacific, the resulting weather pattern typically doesn’t favor Utah for rain and snow. The pattern does, however, deliver above-average temperatures to the state so hunting would at least be comfortable. But with limited moisture and hot weather, whatever water is held by plants will be sucked dry by summer’s end, if not sooner.
When selecting a place to hunt in Utah this fall, the key will be finding the best areas for wildlife among a multitude of poor options. If I had a Utah tag, I’d focus my scouting efforts on one of three areas. I’d take a hard look at Ashley National Forest in the northeast, Sawtooth National Forest in the northwest, and Dixie National Forest in the southwest. These areas, especially the northeast, have been least affected by drought as of the solstice. I’d pick them as odds-on favorites for having best antler growth in the state this summer. The rest of the state will be hit and miss, largely dependent upon what human-made water and food resources are available locally.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: Ashley National Forest northwest of Vernal.
Colorado: This state had the more square miles in in extreme drought conditions than any other western state as summer began. Every location south of a line from Grand Junction to Canon City to Akron to Burlington was in severe to extreme drought, and had been for some time. Conditions are forecast to worsen across a good chunk of Colorado west of Interstate 25 until hunting seasons begin. But there’s a part of the state that could improve.
Long-range models suggest the eastern quarter of Colorado, including severe drought areas of the southeast, could benefit from above-average rainfall into mid-August. It won’t be enough to end the drought in the southeast, but at least it’s something. But the models also forecast intensifying drought in hard-hit areas of south-central and southwest Colorado, including all of San Juan National Forest. With extreme drought will also come extreme fire danger so don’t be surprised if bans on open fires are in still effect when hunting season arrives.
Mountain hunters will have their work cut out for them in Colorado this fall. With wallows and watering holes drying up, food for game becoming scarce and crackling vegetation underfoot, finding and sneaking up on game will be a big challenge. But there is a part of Colorado deer hunters will want to explore. It’s a bit of a sleeper but is home to some impressive whitetail and mulie bucks. I know. I live nearby.
The area I write about is northeast Colorado north of I-70 and east of I-25. It’s mostly private land, so you’ll need to get permission, but it’s also home to Pawnee National Grasslands northeast of Greeley. Not only has this area escaped the worst of Colorado’s drought, but it also benefits from having several small rivers, creeks and streams that had pretty good spring water flow. This region doesn’t get a lot of sporting media attention and locals like it that way, along with the mounts on their walls.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: for deer and pronghorn, northeast Colorado.
Wyoming: From a weather standpoint, Wyoming is looking like one of the more favorable western states this fall. La Nina development should keep the main storm track northeast of the state, allowing fall hunters to enjoy some mild days in the woods, and drought conditions were not as severe during summer’s first half as they were in other states.
Above-average precipitation is forecast through the summer east of a line from the Big Horn Mountains to Laramie, and that should mitigate dry to moderate drought in those areas. Late spring snows in the southern mountains gave a fresh shot of runoff to streams and rivers in the southeast part of the state. But rainfall was forecast to be below average south of Interstate 80 from Laramie to the Utah state line so drought conditions there will be on the increase.
Wyoming is known as a gold mine for trophy bucks and bulls and the weather outlook for hunters is favorable this year. There are two parts of the state worth calling out not only because the moisture situation should be stable, allowing for optimal browse and antler growth through the summer, but also because not many people think about them when applying for tags.
The Black Hills straddle the Wyoming/South Dakota border and are the highest mountains between the Rockies and Europe. The Wyoming side of the northern Black Hills has a favorable moisture profile and benefited from generous spring snows and rain this year. There are some monster bull elk there. I’ve hunted them. And if you can get a tag and permission for Black Hills National Forest, you’re in for a treat. The rest of the land there is private, so get to know landowners and get scouting.
Another area I’ll call out is nearby. It’s Thunder Basis National Grassland in east-central Wyoming and it’s huge. This wild prairie land is chock full of monster mulie bucks and big pronghorns in any year. But with abundant food and ample moisture from the sky this year, it’s bound to be an antler and horn production powerhouse.
Best chances of trophy game based on weather: Big Horns, Black Hills and Thunder Basin.