Montana big game rifle season opened Saturday, and thousands of hunters headed into the wet western Montana weather to bring home an elk and deer harvest on par with last year and above the five-year average for elk.
For the second year in a row, youth hunters, ages 12-15 (and some qualifying 11-year olds, see the regulations), had the chance to hit the field a few days earlier for a youth deer hunt that began on Oct. 20. Extra opportunity yielded extra success for some youth.
“It was fun to see several young hunters with their first deer, and a few will have to be pretty lucky in the future to surpass the antlers they collected this year,” said Mike Thompson, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Region 2 Wildlife Manager.
Overall, during the first weekend of the season, eight percent of hunters that travelled through one of the region’s three hunter check stations harvested game, which is a success total on par with the long-term average. Thompson noted that hunter numbers through the check stations were in line with last year’s opening weekend for the region and slightly above the five year average.
The check stations tallied 2,894 hunters and a harvest of 145 elk, 25 mule deer, 70 white-tailed deer, three wolves and one black bear. During last year’s opening weekend 2,835 hunters reported 137 elk, 26 mule deer, and 82 white-tailed deer.
Hunters that explored the Blackfoot hunting districts this weekend got wet, says Blackfoot-area biologist, Jay Kolbe, and also quite a few got elk and deer, despite more limited hunter opportunity.
The Blackfoot is feeling the effect of tighter hunting regulations that are more limiting for antlerless harvest for elk and deer. For the second year in a row, FWP eliminated the first eight-day either sex season for white-tails that had been tradition for nearly a decade.
These new regulations and changes in wildlife numbers and distribution is translating into lower than normal hunter participation in parts of the region, according to FWP Game Wardens.
But, the check stations still report strong hunter numbers overall, and by the close of hunting on Sunday, check station crews saw a few really nice bulls and hunters reported hot spots for deer and elk. Ray Vinkey, FWP biologist for the eastern part of the region near Deer Lodge and Anaconda, reported a strong opening weekend for elk at his check station near Anaconda, with a lot of cows checked and a high number of hunters in pursuit. Deer harvest was slow.
For the second consecutive season, opening weekend elk harvest at the Darby station set records, due to high numbers of elk checked from hunting districts in the Big Hole Valley. Workers at the Darby check station handled 86 of the region’s 145 elk harvested. According to FWP Bitterroot-area biologist, Craig Jourdonnais, although harvest out of the Big Hole Districts is strong, elk hunting opportunity and harvest is limited in much of the southern Bitterroot Valley due to elk numbers that are sitting below population objective.
The Darby station totals also include two wolves harvested on opening weekend in the Bitterroot Valley. One wolf harvested in the Swan Valley was checked at the Bonner station. Montana’s only other wolf hunting season was held in 2009. Hunters must report their wolf harvest within 12 hours, and rifle hunters marked a statewide harvest of 10 wolves on opening weekend. Eleven additional wolves were harvested during Montana’s early archery and backcountry rifle seasons.
Thompson cautioned that as hunters get into their routines for the season, a few lessons learned on the opening weekend are important to keep in mind.
“Check station crews saw a few instances where the tags came off of deer on the way to the check station. Hunters should make double sure to fasten tags securely,” Thompson said. “And hunters should be sure to check their hunting district for regulations changes and make sure they have a special license where needed to hunt for antlerless deer or elk.”
Safety precautions for hunting in bear country should also be on the top of hunter’s minds, Thompson cautioned. “We had a hunter report a grizzly bear that snatched a nice buck from a pole where it was hung.” Bears are often out and active through the duration of big game rifle season.
Hunters are reminded that they must stop at all check stations that they pass on their way to or from hunting—even if they have not harvested any animals. The general rifle season for deer and elk runs through Sunday, Nov. 27.