Big game hunters in north central Montana should expect widely varying conditions depending on the species they seek, say state wildlife biologists.
There are lots of elk and plenty of white-tailed deer, but in some spots average to below average mule deer and antelope numbers.
North of Great Falls, for example, the numbers look pretty good, reports Gary Olson, Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist in Conrad.
“People can expect some strong numbers for the big game season, even for mule deer,” Olson says. His area runs from the Teton River north to Canada and from the Rocky Mountain Front east to the Marias River and Hill County line.
However, in the Little Belt Mountains south of Great Falls, and the Lewistown area, mule deer and antelope numbers are not as good.
“Mule deer numbers are still down,” says Adam Grove, FWP wildlife biologist in White Sulphur Springs. “There will be antlered buck hunting only in the entire Little Belts.”
And a drop in antelope numbers near Lewistown prompted the FWP Commission to reduce the number of doe/fawn tags offered.
First the good news.
North of Great Falls, Olson says antelope hunters should not have trouble finding animals.
“I’m getting reports that archery hunters are seeing lots of bucks,” he says.
And mule deer numbers should be good this fall, too.
“Mule deer are going to be above average,” Olson says, “but in some areas they will be below last year’s totals; that’s because we had a hard winter and lots of anterless tags last year. I’m not hearing many complaints from landowners about deer damage.”
South of the Teton River, wildlife biologist Brent Lonner sees some of the same conditions.
“Mule deer this year should be pretty good,” Lonner says, “I counted 31 fawns per 100 adult deer this spring. That’s not too bad after the winter we had.”
Those numbers were counted along the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front from Haystack Butte to Ear Mountain.
Lonner adds a note of caution, however: “The mule deer numbers are not as good as the 1970’s and 1980’s but pretty decent compared to the last 10 years.”
Around Great Falls, wildlife biologist Cory Loecker is cautiously optimistic.
“Mule deer numbers are okay, especially after the tough winter we had,” Loecker says.
In hunting districts 413, 447 and 405, Loecker counted about 30 fawns per 100 adults this spring.
And those deer that made it to this summer, when everything was lush and green, should be healthy going into the upcoming winter, Loecker says.
The Little Belts and hunting districts east of Great Falls are not as rosy, says Grove.
Early May surveys in hunting districts 418, 420, 448 and 432 showed overall mule deer numbers at about 75 percent of the long-term average, Grove says. And fawn recruitment in one area near the Judith River Wildlife Management Area, came in at 15 fawns per 100 adults. The long term average is 32 per 100 adults.
“Weather has been the biggest factor,” Grove says. “We had drought 10 years ago, then the last few years we’ve had late winter snowstorms from April into June. There has also been some localized predation, but overall it’s the weather.”
All north central Montana FWP wildlife biologists agree that hunters should see plenty of elk and white-tailed deer.
“Whitetails are like elk, there are lots of them” says Lonner from his office in Fairfield. “Every year I’m seeing a gradual increase in whitetails so that this spring they are about double what they were 15 years ago.”
And while elk are plentiful – too high in some hunting districts – the biggest challenge facing hunters will be getting to the animals.
“Elk numbers continue to be up,” says Grove, referring to the Little Belts. “Winters have not been hard enough to affect the elk population. The problem is lack of access.”Loecker agrees. “From the Highwood Mountains to hunting district 445 near the town of Cascade we have lots of elk everywhere.”