Why were hunter numbers down this season?

2012-12-02T00:10:00Z 2012-12-09T11:22:04Z Why were hunter numbers down this season?By BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The numbers are in from hunter check stations for the final weekend of the general big game season across Montana and overall it looks like 2011 saw fewer hunters taking fewer animals.

One bright spot seemed to be a small increase in the elk harvest in several areas.

The numbers are, however, very preliminary. The check station data only measures a fraction of the hunting public. Telephone surveys conducted this winter, along with post-hunting season wildlife counts, will provide a more complete picture.

Nonetheless, the check station data does detect trends, and the trend this year seemed to be fewer hunters. Why? I can speculate on a couple of possibilities.

One is that gas prices were up again this year, although they tended to fall toward the end of the season. Economic surveys often show that gas prices have a huge effect on discretionary travel. Some hunters may not consider a trip to hunting camp unnecessary, but it can be a luxury for those scrambling to make ends meet.

Another possibility is that there are fewer big game animals in certain regions of the state. Antelope numbers, in particular, were way down this year in much of Eastern Montana after the double whammy of a harsh winter in 2011 and disease outbreak in 2010. That resulted in far fewer licenses being issued, so not as many people traveled east.

Mule deer and whitetail numbers have also dipped in various pockets of the state, again due to the harsh winter of 2010. Whitetails also suffered from another outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in areas like along the Milk River in northeastern Montana. Mule deer numbers generally follow a cycle where they dip about every 15 years or so before climbing again. But they may also be in a vise squeezed between growing competition with the more adaptable and prolific whitetails, as well as the expansion of elk to more areas of Eastern Montana.

The extremely dry spring and summer, which reduced the amount of forage as well as created numerous wildland fires, certainly would contribute to animals being in poorer shape in terms of body fat going into this winter. The effect of that forage shortage is more likely to be reflected next spring in a reduced crop of fawns and elk calves. But it also may have driven animals to different locations and prompted different travel patterns from forage to bedding sites that could have confounded some hunters.

The dry, warm fall could also have meant that hunters delayed their early season trips in hopes of colder, wetter weather later in the season. Then when the weather did hit in mid-November, snowfall was so heavy and made travel so difficult that many hunters probably delayed again rather than risk driving on sketchy roads.

Of course, there’s always the recruitment vs. retirement of hunters that looms as a factor as well. Hunting remains popular in Montana compared with other states, but as the bulk of the population ages — the Baby Boomer generation — there’s likely to be an attrition that isn’t compensated for by new hunters entering the system.

I always wonder, too, if the more sharp political debates about land access, the presence of wolves, differences over Fish, Wildlife and Parks policies and the politicization of hunting and hunting topics have pushed some of the more marginal hunters to simply quit because they’re tired of all of the controversy, as well as locked out of traditional hunting areas.

Maybe you, as a hunter, can give me some insight. Drop me an email or add your comments to this story online.

Elk harvest

As I mentioned, elk seemed in many areas to be the one place where harvests had climbed above last year. That wasn’t the case in southwestern Montana’s Region 3, which has traditionally been the most popular place in the state to hunt elk, but there’s a reason for that drop.

The elk harvest in Region 3, according to check station results, fell from 352 in 2010 to 207 in 2011. This year’s results showed a further drop to 191 elk harvested, but there were two fewer check stations on the roster and the Gallatin check station was open only the first and last weekends of the season. Given those considerations, it’s likely the elk harvest was better than or equal to last year in Region 3.

The region has definitely seen an overall decline in the elk harvest in the past 20 years. According to the state’s elk management plan, “Generally, bull harvest in Region 3 averaged about 2,000 in the early 1960s, 3,000 in the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, about 4,500 in the 1980s, and about 6,000 bulls in the 1990s. The high harvest of 1991 was an anomaly because of the harvest of substantial numbers of bulls from Yellowstone National Park normally not accessible during the general season.”

Last year, Region 3’s entire elk harvest was 8,590, almost half of which were bulls — 4,139. That’s fairly comparable to 2008, when 7,723 elk were taken, 4,211 of which were bulls.

The decline in the elk harvest has no doubt been affected by large predators such as wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and mountain lions preying on elk and elk calves. Elk have also expanded their range to more portions of Eastern Montana and are known to stack up on private land where no hunting or limited hunting is allowed during the elk season. The state is working on a process to reach these “harbored” elk to try to provide more opportunity for hunters as well as bring elk populations within management goals. Stay tuned for how that may alter future hunting seasons.

Elk study

Adding to our understanding of elk, a recently published University of Alberta study has shown that elk are more “frequently and easily disturbed by human behavior, such as ATV drivers, than by their natural predators like bears and wolves.”

This could be interpreted to mean that if you want to find elk, get as far away from roads and motorized trails as possible. There's an old piece of advice for you.

Researchers spent 12 months in southwestern Alberta studying elk herds made up of females and their calves. They found that with just one vehicle passing by an elk herd every two hours, the animals became disturbed and more vigilant. The increase in traffic meant the elk ate less, possibly affecting their health and calving success. Not surprisingly, “the researchers found that the highest level of disturbance happened on public lands where the effect of hunting and ATV use was cumulative.”

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