Hunters enjoyed deep mountain snow during the final two weeks of general big game season in west-central Montana, bringing reported elk harvest totals in line with last year when the season closed on Sunday. White-tailed deer harvest finished 30 percent ahead of last year, while mule deer numbers were down 22 percent.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Wildlife Manager, Mike Thompson, said that the check station hunter harvest totals cannot stand alone in telling this hunting season’s story.
“There are a lot of things to consider when evaluating the season success, like the more conservative hunting regulations that we have in place in many parts of the region, paired with a big blast of winter weather at the end of the season,” Thompson said.
The bump in bull elk and some deer harvest during the winter weather bolstered season totals, which were otherwise suppressed this year due to limitations in antlerless hunting opportunity.
Harvest limitations likely translated into a decrease in hunter participation region-wide. Hunter numbers were down at all hunter check stations, and most markedly at the Darby station in the Bitterroot Valley.
Still, Thompson noted, the hunter success rate is on par with the long-term average region-wide. “We’ve got some areas where harvest and hunter participation are really down, but overall eight percent of hunters brought home game this year, which is a typical hunter success rate in western Montana,” Thompson said.
The Darby check station might have counted 2,000 fewer hunters compared to 2009, but its tally sheets show more elk this year than last, due largely in part to a strong early season harvest out of the Big Hole and a strong final week of the season for bulls. Snow during the season’s last 10 days led to nearly 100 elk checked through the station, compared to only 43 the week before. Nearly eight percent of hunters passing through the station were successful, compared to six percent last year.
“The weather definitely kicked things into gear and moved elk, and we saw a lot of big mature bulls through the station as the season came to a close,” said Craig Jourdonnais, FWP Wildlife Biologist. “We saw quite a few youth hunters this week with their first elk, and some tremendous mule deer bucks from areas with limited permit systems for hunters.”
Harvest totals at the Darby station were above last year for white-tailed deer, but behind for mule deer. Reported totals for all animals were down compared to the five-year average.
“Regulations have tightened up in the valley due to declining elk and deer numbers in some areas,” Jourdonnais said. “Harvest was way down in the West Fork and there seemed to be hardly anyone hunting there.”
At the Bonner check station, harvest totals reflected a good final week for hunters in the Blackfoot Valley. Snow bumped harvest, and those who got out took white-tailed bucks at a rate similar to recent years. Bonner recorded a white-tail harvest of nearly 100 over the 2009 totals. Even with the winter weather in play, total deer and elk numbers reported at Bonner were well below the five-year average, driven by reductions of cow elk and antlerless deer license availability.
The region’s eastern-most check station in Anaconda reported a season-end elk harvest below last year but on track with the five-year average. Mule deer harvest was also down, but white-tail harvest up.
“The station doesn’t track most of the harvest that comes out of Rock and Flint Creek drainages, where elk hunters reported good success during the snowy end to the season,” Ray Vinkey, FWP Wildlife Biologist, noted.
At the season’s end, 17,890 hunters had passed through west-central Montana’s three check stations with 565 elk, 197 mule deer, and 643 white-tailed deer. Last year’s season totals showed 20,395 hunters that reported 586 elk, 254 mule deer, and 496 white-tailed deer.