White-tailed deer are flourishing along the Beartooth Front while their mule deer cousins remain in a steady decline, according to spring wildlife surveys.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Shawn Stewart has seen whitetail numbers in his survey areas along the Beartooths climb from about 250 in the 1980s to more than 1,700 this year, a record high.
White-tailed deer are known to be prolific reproducers, with twin fawns common. They tend to gravitate to river bottoms and agricultural lands where food is plentiful, meaning few die in the spring from malnutrition following tough winters.
Mule deer, the native deer of Montana, have different needs. They occupy the more open country of the foothills, as well as the mountains. Their primary winter food used to be sagebrush, although now many also rely on agricultural fields.
The Derby fire in 2006 wiped out almost half of the sagebrush habitat used by deer in southern Sweet Grass and Stillwater counties, contributing to the mule deer’s decline.
“Without winter range, they aren’t doing well,” Stewart said.
A mule deer trend area near Nye was 50 percent below the long-term average. But even where fire hasn’t wiped out sagebrush, mule deer numbers are down.
“All of my trend areas were at or near record lows this year. It doesn’t seem to matter where we look, they’re not doing well,” Stewart said.
Past FWP studies showed mule deer populations tended to cycle up and down about every 10 years. But Stewart said that both valleys and peaks of the cycle are now lower.
“So the 10-year cycle is kind of falling apart,” he said. “It’s not following the pattern it used to.”
On the plus side, moose numbers were up along Stewart’s survey areas, a trend that bucks other areas of the state that are seeing moose populations nosedive. Stewart’s survey areas showed moose numbers up 40 percent over last year, mainly between Red Lodge and the West Rosebud drainage.
Stewart believes that frequent fires along the Beartooth Front have removed much of the old-growth conifers that moose need for winter habitat. Conversely, continued work to revitalize aspen stands has provided much-needed moose food.
Elk numbers have also climbed along the Beartooth Front and FWP is looking at increasing hunting permits on both hunting districts near the Stillwater River, but the problem is that most of the elk are on private land, where access is limited.
“We’re so far over objective we have to do something with the season structure to try and address some of that,” he said. “We’re virtually over objective in all of our units, and in some by two to three times.”