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Big buck

A large whitetail buck rests in a Missoula neighborhood. Whitetail populations are generally strong across the state.

Although archery season is already underway and continues until Oct. 20, rifle hunters will have to wait until Oct. 26 to hit the field. Here's what Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is saying about big game populations across the state.

Region 3

From the Pintler Mountains on the west side of the region to the Absaroka-Beartooth range on the east, southwest Montana is defined by high-mountain rugged country and an abundance of public land. Big game thrives here, particularly elk.

Hunting season last year was challenging due to winter’s late arrival, which kept conditions relatively mild through the end of December, delaying wildlife migrations. Extreme temperatures and heavy snowfall followed from January through April, which impacted ungulate numbers throughout much of the region.

As with most years hunter success this fall will largely depend on when the snow arrives. If there’s early snow, higher harvest numbers can be expected. If dry conditions continue through the fall, hunters can expect average to below-average harvest rates.

Elk numbers are healthy around Helena (hunting districts 318, 335, 339 and 343). Hunter harvest is still reported at 50 percent in HD 339, which is a limited-entry district. Fawn recruitment for mule deer in these districts is still below desired thresholds, and doe licenses have been reduced in several districts. Adult mule deer numbers are still good compared to prior years.

Deer and elk populations experienced moderate winter mortality — especially in last year’s young — in the Bull, Pintler, Highland and north Beaverhead mountain ranges (HDs 319, 321, 334, 340, 341, 350 and 370). Adult elk and deer weren’t significantly impacted, but fawn and calf numbers are down from last year. Hunters might see a difference in the number of 2-year-old bull elk next year. Pronghorn populations experienced similar trends, but their numbers are stable overall. Most animals that survived the winter should be in good physical condition.

The Tendoy Elk Management Unit and the Pioneer Mountains (HDs 300, 302, 328, 329, 331 and 332) saw a spectrum of ungulate survival, with the heaviest mortality in the northern portion of this area, moderating south from Dillon. Many deer entered last winter in good condition, but extreme weather from January through March reduced fawn survival. Elk hunter harvest over the past three hunting seasons has been moderate, mostly due to late elk migrations.

Winter survival trends for ungulates in the Bridger, Gallatin and Madison ranges (deer and elk HDs 301, 309, 310, 311, 321, 360, 361 and 362; and pronghorn districts 311 and 360) varied by species. Pronghorn suffered the most seasonal mortality due to severe conditions in late February through March, which led to some starvation. Pronghorn are showing signs of declines from recent highs, but their numbers are still within the long-term average. Mule deer counts are also within the long-term average. And elk counts are robust in all districts except 310, which continues to be below objective.

The east Gallatin, Crazy, Bangtail and north Bridger ranges (HDs 313, 314, 315, 317 and 393) tell a similar story due to extreme winter conditions from January through March. Elk mortality was worst in southern Park County. Populations in the northern part of the Paradise Valley up to Interstate 90 also saw some mortality, but their numbers remain at or above objective in most areas. Elk numbers are still above objective in the Bangtail Mountains, but access is a challenge for most hunters. Deer numbers have been increasing in this area over the past few years. This year brought some declines from recent averages, but deer numbers are still within long-term averages.

Following the 2018 hunting season, elk populations in the Tobacco Root (HDs 320 and 333) and Gravelly (HDs 322, 323, 324, 325, 326, 327 and 330) Elk Management Units remain above management objective. This past winter didn’t produce significant elk mortality in these areas. The majority of elk and elk harvest in Hunting District 333 will be distributed outside of national forest lands. Hunters will need to obtain private landowner permission to access many of these elk. Elk harvest in this part of the state is influenced by snow accumulation and subsequent elk migrations. Hunters arriving before snow facilitates elk migration to traditional winter range may find unproductive hunting in those areas.

Noticeable white-tailed deer mortality occurred in March and April in the Ruby, Beaverhead and Jefferson valleys, but many deer remain this summer. White-tailed deer are found primarily on private land in these areas, so landowner permission will be required to get to them. White-tailed deer hunting throughout public lands and tributaries will be opportunistic and subject to weather.

Mule deer production and survival varied through Madison and Beaverhead counties last winter. Overall, biologists observed a 7 percent reduction in mule deer in this area relative to 2018, with variability in specific areas ranging from 17 percent growth to 34 percent reduction. In spite of this annual reduction, the overall mule deer population remains 24 percent higher than three years ago. The number of mule deer observed by hunters is expected to remain relatively comparable to the past two years.

Pronghorn experienced a 44 percent reduction compared to 2018 on the west side of the Tobacco Root Mountains (HD 320) due to winter mortality. Pronghorn hunting licenses there have been reduced in response to the change. Biologists expect this population to recover relatively quickly if favorable conditions return. Pronghorn around Lima Reservoir (HD 330) are in good condition, and hunters can expect a productive hunting season there.

Hunters may encounter some changes to how some Bureau of Land Management and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation motorized routes are signed around Dillon. Agencies are making efforts to sign roads that are not open for motorized travel as closed. This is part of an effort to improve public understanding of public lands travel routes. Before you drive out to this area inquire with the local BLM office to get maps and current information for open and drivable roads.

Hunters who plan to hunt in the Gravelly, Centennial, Greenhorn, south Tobacco Root or Madison ranges should be exceptionally cautious of grizzly bear activity. The south Gravelly Mountains have had an especially dense concentration of grizzlies this year. For information on hunting safely in grizzly country, please visit igbconline.org/hunters.

Region 4

Deer and elk numbers overall are good in north-central Montana, though still recovering from the 2017-2018 winter. Last winter was not bad, except for about six weeks from February through mid-March. That stretch seemed to affect people more than many big game species.

In the Little Belt and Castle mountains, which cover nine hunting districts south of Great Falls, elk numbers are at or above average, but mule deer are low compared to the long-term average, says Jay Kolbe, FWP wildlife biologist.

“With mule deer we have decent bucks but lower numbers,” Kolbe said. “Elk production the last two years have come through at average or slightly above average.”

On the Rocky Mountain Front mule deer numbers are slightly better, and elk are mostly average to below average.

The Sun River elk herd calf recruitment has been slightly lower in recent years due to weather, predation and harvest by hunters, says Brent Lonner, FWP wildlife biologist. Calf recruitment refers to those animals that survived their first year.

Last winter about 2,100 animals were observed within the Sun River elk herd, which is about 5 percent below the long-term average.

Mule deer numbers all along the Front appear to be average or even slightly above average.

And of course, white-tailed deer numbers are high, says Lonner: “Lots of white tails.”

Near Great Falls the Highwood Mountains should have good numbers of mule deer and elk are everywhere. Like the rest of the region, gaining access for hunters will be the challenge.

The same holds true for Lewistown, as mule deer numbers are increasing from the winter of 2017-2018, while elk are numerous for those hunters who can gain access.

Region 5

South-central Montana is coming off of two consecutive severe winters and wet late springs. These have been tough on mule deer throughout the region. Fawn recruitment was poor and adult mortality was elevated, resulting in lower spring counts in most districts. In general harvest might be a bit lower than last year.

Elk numbers remain high in all areas of south-central Montana, except east of Billings where numbers are near objectives and the upper main Boulder River, where numbers are slightly below objective but stable.

Along the north side of the Beartooth Mountains elk numbers remain high.

Shoulder seasons resulted in some shifts from the normal elk distribution in both the early and late season. Due to abundant precipitation this spring and early summer the elk remain widely scattered and forage is abundant.

Access is the limiting factor for elk hunters in all areas of south-central Montana.

Mule deer buck harvest continues to run well below average in the southwest part of the region, even though overall populations are only slightly below long-term average. The area south of the Musselshell River and northwest of Billings is an exception, with mule deer numbers remaining above the long-term average.

Despite lower fawn recruitment following the past two springs white-tailed deer numbers remain above long-term average in most areas. Harvest should be very similar to last year with the highest populations along the major river corridors such as the Musselshell and Yellowstone rivers and their tributaries.

Antelope numbers are improving in the central and eastern portions of the region from the past few years. Numbers in the south and west parts of the region saw declines for the second year in a row. These declines were most likely from the severe winter. Hunters may notice fewer antelope in these areas and have to work harder to fill their tags.

Region 1

The northwest corner of Montana features vast conifer forests spread across rolling topography and rugged mountains. This expansive landscape provides exceptional habitat for a wide array of wildlife, including white-tailed and mule deer, elk, black and grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves, turkeys and furbearers. Designated as Region 1, this area features millions of acres of public lands and private timber company land open to public hunting. While this region encompasses only about 10 percent of the state it provides approximately 40 percent of the black bear, mountain lion and wolf harvests in the state each year. White-tailed deer are the most plentiful big game species in this area and approximately 20 percent of the state’s annual harvest occurs here.

Mother Nature has not been kind to big game herds with three straight harsh, snowy winters hurting recruitment rates. While the overall number of deer and elk remain stable across the region, hunters could experience lower harvest numbers compared to previous years due to this cycle. FWP biologists expect fewer younger white-tailed bucks to be in the population. However, this spring saw wet, cool conditions that created significant green forage throughout the summer. These conditions lead to excellent antler growth in both bucks and bulls and foster higher fawn and calf survival.

During spring surveys FWP observed more bull elk than previous years in HD 121. In HD 119, the number of bull elk appears above the five-year average.

Mule deer numbers in the Lower Clark Fork remain low but appear to be stable. Good mule deer habitat is limited in this region, and hunters wishing to pursue muleys should hunt the high country in the Cabinet Mountains for the best results.

In the Whitefish Range and North Fork elk numbers appear low but stable relative to the past 10 years. Hunters can expect similar numbers of mule deer relative to the past 10 years, though they may encounter fewer mature deer due to poor recruitment. Data from collared mule deer in the Whitefish range suggests better survival this past winter. Harvest data suggests that white-tailed deer numbers are relatively low in the North Fork, but observed recruitment was more than twice that observed the previous year and should keep populations stable.

In the Tobacco Valley and Stillwater drainages overall resident elk numbers are down, though a mild spring and good green-up should have allowed for better recruitment. While mule deer numbers are in decline, hunters can expect to see a similar number of deer relative to the past five years. White-tailed-deer numbers are stable, and hunters should expect to see similar numbers of animals relative to last year.

In the Libby area spring deer surveys suggest that white-tailed deer numbers in HDs 100, 103, and 104 are on par with what they were in 2018. This apparent stability was encouraging considering the harsh winters. However, reproduction may have taken a minor hit recently as 2019’s surveys show that the ratios of fawns per 100 adults was down in all three hunting districts and more similar to numbers from 2013. Thus, hunters should expect to see fewer younger deer when hunting this year.

Spring surveys in the Libby area showed that mule deer numbers in HD 103 have decreased only slightly and stabilized since their high total numbers and reproduction in 2013 and 2014. The recent mule deer research project is providing FWP with promising information regarding mortality: The mule deer does FWP collared in the Fisher River project area (part of HD 103) have the lowest mortality rates of mule deer amongst the three mule deer study areas. FWP personnel did observe some very large muley bucks in the higher elevations (above 6,200 feet) during mountain goat survey flights in the Cabinet Mountains.

Elk numbers around the Libby area appear fairly stable, and cow-to-calf ratios appear only slightly lower than the long-term average. While the numbers of total elk harvested in HD 103 has decreased slightly in the past five years, the proportion of harvested antlerless elk has nearly tripled.

The moose harvest in HD 105 has dropped over the past six years, since FWP moved to bulls-only regulation in the region. The average number of days until harvest was near the long-term average (17 days) until last year, when it increased (23 days). Despite these statistics FWP has consistently seen a much higher number of moose, including moose with calves, during collaring efforts that occur a little later than surveys each year. Rather than rely solely on survey and harvest data to tell us about trends in moose numbers, FWP began collaring moose in HD 105, and two other study areas, in 2013. The study has revealed that none of the study areas’ moose populations are in dire straits, and the HD 105 study area has very high adult cow survival rate.

FWP has detected chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer in the Libby area, and hunters need to be aware of the Libby CWD Management Zone, which includes portions of HDs 100, 103 and 104. All deer, elk and moose harvested within the Libby CWD Management Zone, including any harvested with a Libby Special CWD Hunt B license and any harvested with any other type of license, must be checked and sampled within three days of harvest. Animals can be checked at either the new Libby Special CWD Hunt Sampling Station (Montana Department of Transportation shop on U.S. Highway 2, mile marker 35) or the Canoe Gulch Check Station. Hunters who quarter or bone out their animal in the field must bring the head for sampling.

Before Oct. 26 hunters who successfully harvest an animal are required to bring the head to the FWP Libby Office, 385 Fish Hatchery Rd. A collection site will be set up for hunters to self-report and submit the head for testing.

During general big game season (Oct. 26 to Dec. 1), the Libby Special CWD Hunt Sampling Station will be open every day from 11 a.m. until 1½ hours after sunset. Hunters are only required to stop at the Sampling Station if they harvested an animal. The Canoe Gulch Check Station will be open weekends from 11 a.m. until 1½ hours after sunset during the general season and all hunters, with or without game, passing the check station must stop.

Hunters will be required to document the exact location of the kill. Animals will be tagged with a unique identification number. Hunters can use that identification number to look up test results on the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov/CWD. Test results are usually available within three weeks. Hunters who harvest an animal that tests positive for CWD may receive a replacement 2019 license.

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Region 2

Elk counts in western Montana were good this spring, continuing a long, upward population trend in western Montana in most locations. Counts were off in a few spots due to difficult conditions for surveying elk, as well as elk moving and scattering in response to longer hunting seasons, as prescribed. Numbers of brow-tined bull elk may be a bit lower because of recent hard winters.

Good summer moisture across the region should hold more elk in the mountains on public land this fall until snow pushes them down.

Hunters hoping to participate in elk shoulder seasons this fall or winter should secure permission on private land now and then purchase an elk B-license before the start of the general hunting season. Look for the 002-00 regional B-license, and please read the regulations for your area carefully. Remember that these B-licenses are valid only for private lands. Shoulder seasons are achieving their desired effect in most places, which means that elk on private lands are more scattered now and harder to hunt.

White-tailed deer numbers have been on an upward trend in general, but several hard winters in a row have dampened fawn survival. So, the whitetail population is holding steady overall, rather than increasing in most places. Good summer moisture has benefited whitetails on public land, as well as on private land.

Opportunities to hunt mule deer are somewhat limited in western Montana. Many districts require a permit or B-license, awarded through the statewide application process earlier this year. Mule deer hunters should plan to go high in the mountains for the best opportunity at bigger bucks. An emerging opportunity for hunters in western Montana is to hunt mule deer on private lands, where numbers generally are growing. Again, pay close attention to the regulations to make sure you are properly licensed to hunt mule deer.

There are only a few antelope hunting opportunities in western Montana, where the population of antelope is around 400. Hunting is limited to a few hunters who received a license through a special drawing.

For more information on antelope, deer and elk numbers and hunting opportunities in western Montana, check out the FWP Region 2 Wildlife Quarterly, available online at fwp.mt.gov/regions/r2/wildlifeQuarterly.html or at the Region 2 headquarters in Missoula.

Region 7

Southeast Montana experienced above-average rainfall this summer, which produced abundant forage and cover for wildlife. Good habitat conditions will benefit wildlife populations, but that can actually make hunting more difficult, especially during the early season. With water and green forage available nearly everywhere on the landscape critters remain spread out and difficult to find. They won’t be concentrated near wetter areas or areas with thermal cover until the forage dries out and inclement weather sets in.

Archery antelope hunters targeting water holes should expect fewer encounters since there are more options for critters to water. Rifle deer hunters should expect to spend more time glassing since high vegetation offers better concealment. Heavy cover will make for tougher hiking for bird hunters and more difficult scenting conditions for gun dogs.

This year’s habitat conditions should boost populations next year (pending what Mother Nature has in store this winter), but hunters should expect to put a little extra wear on their boots this fall to find game.

Aerial surveys of deer populations in southeast Montana indicate that both mule deer and white-tailed deer remain above long-term average.

“Abundant precipitation last year made for good forage conditions and deer going into winter in good body condition,” said wildlife biologist Melissa Foster. “The winter was mild up until February, when we got about six weeks of bitter cold and snow. Seems like most deer had enough 'gas in the tank' to make it through to spring green-up.”

FWP received no reports of widespread winterkills of deer.

“Mule deer are looking good,” Foster said, “Numbers are 5% below last year but still 27% above long-term average.”

Foster determines long-term average by tracing survey data back to the 1996-97 season and harvest figures back to 1976.

Surveys show mule deer population density in southeast Montana has been increasing since about 2012, when deer numbers began to rebound from a crash following back-to-back bitter winters. In 2015, deer reached the highest density recorded in the past three decades.

The recruitment rate for mule deer fawns is also solid, climbing steadily since 2010.

“This spring we saw a recruitment of 56 fawns per 100 adults,” Foster said. “Similarly, mule deer buck harvest is 15 percent above long-term average.”

“We’ve had abundant precipitation again this year, and everything looks good in terms of fawn production survival,” she said. “Deer should again be going into the hunting season and winter in good body condition.”

It is a balancing act to keep deer numbers at a level that provides opportunity but doesn’t exceed the land’s carrying capacity. High deer numbers can mean inadequate winter browse and thermal cover, and harsh winters can compound this effect.

Buck-to-doe ratios have decreased from the past couple of years but remain at a strong 34 bucks per 100 does.

Whitetail populations aren’t quite as robust as mule deer, but numbers are still above average.

“Whitetails took a little dip this spring, with counts 26% below last year, but still 12% above long-term average,” Foster said. “Whitetail buck harvest was 3% below LTA last fall. Recruitment is still good at 54 fawns per 100 adults.”

“All in all, I'd say whitetail numbers are about average for our neck of the woods, and as is typical for whitetails, numbers are booming in some spots and down in others, on a very localized scale,” she said. “Buck-to-doe ratios for whitetail are at 29 bucks per 100 does.”

Antelope populations are variable across southeastern Montana. Herds in central and eastern Montana were hit hard by harsh winters in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The rate of recovery since then has been mixed. Antelope numbers in the southern half of the region (primarily HDs 704 and 705) continue to be strong. During summer surveys biologists observed nearly nine antelope per square mile in the very southeast corner of the state, which transitioned to three to four antelope per square mile in the more northerly portions of HD 705, and fewer than two antelope per square mile throughout most of HDs 700, 701, 702 and 703.

“The message here is that the extra windshield time to reach the southeast corner of Region 7 is absolutely worth it,” Foster said. “Hunters will find better densities and good public land opportunity in this remote portion of Region 7.”

Summer production surveys indicate that southeast Montana antelope numbers have more than doubled from the low in 2012. Fawn recruitment was solid this summer, and animals should be heading into fall and winter in excellent body condition given this year’s ample moisture and abundant forage. Buck ratios are also strong at 54 bucks per 100 does prior to this hunting season.

FWP is offering more either-sex rifle licenses than in the previous few years, allowing more sportsmen to enjoy the opportunity provided by the current strong buck numbers. Doe-fawn licenses remain relatively low at 1,500, where they have been since 2016. 

These are good times for elk hunters, as Montana elk populations continue to be strong across most of the state. In many hunting districts, however, access to private lands can be difficult, which can affect hunting success given landownership patterns and distribution of elk.

Even if you didn't draw a special permit this year, remember that Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for elk with just a general hunting license.

The most recent winter surveys indicated that elk populations in southeast Montana are continuing moderate growth and gradual expansion into unoccupied available habitat. FWP biologists observed strong calf recruitment (54 per 100 cows) and an excellent composition of bulls (38 per 100 cows).

The Missouri Breaks (Hunting District 700) and Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, 705) remain the two “core” elk populations. Outside of these areas elk numbers across the region are low, distribution is spotty and elk are primarily found on private land where public hunting access is limited.

Bull hunting is by permit only in HDs 700, 702, 704, 705 and the far western portion of 701. In HD 703 and in the rest of 701, hunters can pursue either-sex elk with a general license.

Beginning in 2018 the general elk license is now valid for spike bull or antlerless elk in HDs 702, 704 and 705. Previously it was only valid for antlerless elk. This change provides more opportunity for hunters, reduces accidental harvest of spike bulls, and is not expected to have a measurable impact on bull numbers. See regulations to determine which lands the general elk license is valid for during the archery and general seasons.

Additional antlerless opportunities exist in the region via a general and/or B-license, and hunters are encouraged to review the regulations for more details on those opportunities. It is important for hunters to note that there are no elk shoulder seasons in any of the Region 7 hunting districts.

Region 6

Mule deer populations are high across the region but vary depending on the hunting district. Overall, numbers seen during spring surveys showed regionwide population at 56 percent above average. Due to increasing quota numbers, there may be surplus tags still available in some districts.

Winter mortality was variable across the region during the 2018-2019 winter but likely was minimal based on observations and reports.

“A small amount of winter mortality was observed throughout the region,” says Outlook-area biologist Ryan Williamson, “with mostly fawns succumbing to the harsher late winter weather. Generally speaking, the mule deer appeared to have overwintered well.”

White-tailed deer populations continue to remain stable. Williamson said surveys have been completed in six areas across northeast Montana.

“Due to more uniform habitat, the whitetail surveys tend to look at deer density, as opposed to total numbers, for trends,” added Williamson.

The 2019 year’s survey show whitetail deer density an average of 11.7 deer per square mile across the trend areas, which is approximately 10 percent above the long-term average of 10.7 deer per square mile, an increase of 22 percent from the 2018 surveys.

Due to the 2018 detection of chronic wasting disease in the northern districts of Region 6, hunters will be required to adhere to transportation restrictions in the Northern Montana CWD Management Zone, which includes all the districts in Region 6 north of Highway 2. Hunters will also be asked to voluntarily provide deer heads at certain locations.

Elk hunting opportunities in most areas in northeast Montana are limited to licenses/permits awarded through special drawings. Those hunting districts where elk hunting is allowed on a general license are mostly areas with small and scattered elk populations and very limited elk hunting opportunity.

Overall, 2018 survey results found elk numbers in the Missouri River Breaks were down from the last survey, while elk numbers in the Bears Paw herd were up. Elk calf numbers in both herds were near average during the surveys, indicating typical winter mortality.

Elk shoulder seasons will occur in northeast Montana from Dec. 15-Jan. 15. Hunters interested in participating in this hunting season will have had to already have drawn a shoulder season license (License 696-00 or 699-00) to hunt. General season elk licenses are not valid during the elk shoulder season in FWP Region 6. The Missouri Breaks shoulder season license (699-00) is not valid on the CMR Refuge. Make sure you’re familiar with the regulations for the area you plan on hunting.

In general, antelope populations have been slowly increasing across the region, but in most cases populations remain below long-term averages.

Antelope licenses are distributed through the drawing system. Major reductions in licenses were seen following the winter of 2010-11, however some increase in licenses have been seen since that time. Those who have drawn licenses should have a good opportunity to harvest an antelope.

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