Hunter numbers at game check stations in south-central Montana's Region 5 dropped over the weekend to their lowest number ever recorded in the third week of the season, possibly due to the warm, dry weather.
The number of deer harvested and the percentage of hunters with game also were the lowest since comprehensive counts were started in 2003.
Just 638 hunters with 67 mule deer and 92 white-tailed deer stopped. That is well below the 892 hunters with 103 mule deer and 167 white-tailed deer that stopped during the same weekend in 2009.
Elk and antelope harvest numbers also were below last year.
So far in 2010, 29.6 percent of hunters who have stopped at south-central Montana check stations have harvested game. That is the first time since current records were started in 2003 that the percentage has dipped below 30 percent for the first three weekends. The drop is even more surprising considering that hunting opened on a Saturday instead of the traditional Sunday, extending the surveyed period by a day.
At the Laurel check station, only 14 white-tailed deer — half bucks and half does — came through the Laurel site, said Jay Watson, FWP wildlife technician.
FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart said he checked just 19 mule deer at the Columbus station — fewer than half as many as the same weekend last year and an all-time low for the third weekend of the season.
The number of hunters who stopped at Columbus over the weekend was 19 percent below last year.
But the number of hunters is about average year-to-date.
At the Lavina check station, FWP wildlife biologist Jay Newell said the number of hunters with game was well below average for the third weekend of the season. While the number of hunters was below the 17-year average, it is about in line with the past five years. At Big Timber, FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh said hunter numbers and harvest statistics were dismal. The number of harvested white-tailed deer, mule deer and antelope all were the lowest for the third weekend.
Hunter numbers and harvest of elk and mule deer was slow in southwest Montana, while the white-tailed deer harvest was up over 2009.
Overall, 5.1 percent of hunters checked game through the seven check stations with 49 elk, 20 mule deer and 14 white-tailed deer.
Almost 9 percent of hunters checked game through Cameron in the Madison Valley with 14 elk and eight white-tailed deer. The Ruby, south of Alder, and Divide, south of Butte, each had 7.1 percent of hunters come through with game. Silver City, northwest of Helena, once again saw the most hunters with 475 folks passing through over the weekend, but harvest was low at 2.9 percent.
The deer harvest is pretty close to the recent average, but the elk harvest is down along the Rocky Mountain Front, according to Brent Lonner, FWP wildlife biologist.
Part of the reason the elk take is down, Lonner said, is the lack of harvest in the Sun River elk herd.
“They've got no reason to migrate out from the back country to the Front,” he said.
Through the second week of the season hunters have brought in 88 elk compared to the five-year average of 131 animals.
Mule deer taken by hunters number 101. The average annual take for the last five years is 109.
Whitetails harvested are at 79. The five-year average is 84.
The general season in Montana runs through Nov. 28.
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at email@example.com or at 657-1387.