Hunter opportunities to take deer and pronghorns in northeastern Montana have been sharply cut in several hunting districts as wildlife populations have plummeted after a harsh winter and spring and now a possible disease outbreak.
More than 7,000 tags for deer and antelope have been pulled in the region to try to ease the pressure on game populations.
“Cutting back severely right now means a better chance for the population to rebound,” said Kelvin Johnson, a wildlife biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Glasgow. “That’s a short-term thing when you look at the big picture.”
Fewer licenses to hunt will mean fewer hunters spending dollars at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and motels in a rural area that benefits greatly from sportsmen in the fall.
A survey in 2003 estimated that there were more than 73,000 hunter-days spent in Eastern Montana with hunters on average spending an estimated $1,500 annually. Another possible side effect is hunting outfitters dropping private land leases because of the shortage of game.
Of all the big game populations, pronghorns have suffered the most after deep snows made it impossible for the animals to find food. In the northeast, the overall antelope population is estimated to have fallen by 70 percent compared with last year, Johnson said. The herds in some areas have lost two fawn crops in a row. Populations are as low as they’ve been in 50 to 60 years, Johnson said.
That drop in antelope numbers was also felt in southeastern Montana, where populations plunged by almost 60 percent from the 10-year average and the fawn crop was half of normal. As a result, either-sex antelope licenses were reduced from 11,000 last year to 6,500 for the 2011 hunting season.
Johnson said it could be eight to 10 years before the pronghorn populations rebound.
On top of the devastating natural disasters of record snowfall and flooding, another element has been added this summer to further pressure deer — a suspected outbreak of a biting midge-borne disease that seems to be sweeping all of Eastern Montana’s river drainages.
“If this outbreak continues, it’s going to be a one-two-three punch,” Johnson said. “It’s very widespread.”
The outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease hasn’t been confirmed by lab tests in northeastern Montana yet, but all signs point that way. The disease mainly affects white-tailed deer that live along waterways. Whitetails had weathered the winter fairly well since they often raid haystacks — something antelope won’t do — to find enough nutrition to survive. Worried by the possible outbreak of EHD, wildlife officials in northeastern Montana decided to further decrease the number of doe licenses it would offer to 2,000, down from 5,000 last year.
Although EHD tends to hit whitetails, mule deer populations were whacked by the winter’s harshness.
“Our surveys show that mule deer experienced large population decreases across the region, but especially in hunting districts 611, 630, 652 and 670,” Mark Sullivan, Region 6 wildlife manager, said in a statement. “In those districts, antlerless mule deer B licenses have been greatly reduced, in some cases up to 92 percent below what were available last year.”
Mule deer doe licenses have also been cut in half in southeastern Montana as the population fell 20 percent below the long-term average.
Seeing the good
One of the bright spots in all the dire news is that elk populations in Eastern Montana are holding steady.
The other piece of good news is that the surviving animals are finding excellent habitat because of the moisture. But even that benefit has a double edge. As Johnson noted, the expanse of good habitat will allow the remaining animals to spread out, making them harder for hunters to find.
“In order to have success this year, people are going to have to hunt very hard,” he said. “It’s one of those years; we’re living in a historical moment.”
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at email@example.com or at 657-1387.