West-central Montana check station totals were slow but steady for the first week of rifle season and showed a below average harvest for deer, alongside an above average elk harvest.
The above average elk harvest, according to Regional Wildlife Manager, Mike Thompson, is not consistent across all parts of the region. Elk numbers and hunter license opportunity are down in the southern reaches of the Bitterroot Valley, the northern Blackfoot Valley, and in much of the western part of the region, while the eastern parts of the region are at historic highs.
The Darby check station running total of 173 elk is on par with the five-year average, but a large proportion of these elk were harvested in southwestern Montana’s Big Hole Valley, not the Bitterroot districts. And elk hunting in the Blackfoot Valley is a mixed bag. Harvest totals reported at the Bonner check station are below the five-year average, but on par with last year.
Elk harvest has been strongest in the Upper Clark Fork near Deer Lodge and Anaconda, where elk populations are at all-time highs and hunting regulations have been liberalized accordingly.
Ray Vinkey, FWP biologist in the Upper Clark Fork, has already seen 44 elk through his check station near Anaconda this year. According to Vinkey, although the hunting season is only 25 percent complete, the elk harvest through Anaconda is already 66 percent of the total harvest for the 2010 season.
Thompson says that biologists are hoping to reach their desired hunter harvest in the Upper Clark Fork, but cautions that many of these elk are often concentrated on private lands, where hunters must have permission and exercise extra respect for the landowners.
“We really appreciate the landowners who are opening their lands to hunters this season,” says Thompson. “And we ask hunters to respect landowner rights and earn respect from the landowners in return.”
Harvest for mule deer and white-tailed deer is down from the long-term average in most parts of the region, due largely to a moderate decline in populations that has spurred tighter hunting regulations in many districts.
But that does not mean that hunters will not find deer in the usual spots. “Our surveys show fewer deer overall across the region, but they are still in spots that hunters are used to finding them, and many will, especially once the snow starts to fly and the rut picks up even more.”
Biologists noted that the deer rut is beginning, and the Bonner and Darby check stations saw a few large bucks through this weekend as a result.
“We’ve checked a few very nice bucks through the Darby station, but overall our warm, dry conditions are keeping harvest slow,” said FWP Bitterroot biologist, Craig Jourdonnais. “Until conditions change to move the animals around and make them easier to track, we’re likely to see deer and elk just trickle through the check stations.”
Hunter check stations are also tallying the wolves that happen to pass through this season for the second time in Montana history. Hunters have taken 44 statewide since archery season opened Sept. 3, and 10 of those were harvested in west-central Montana’s Region 2. The state quota is set at 220 wolves, and hunters must report their wolf harvest within 12 hours.
Overall, during the first week of the season, nearly eight percent of hunters that passed through one of the region’s three hunter check stations harvested game. The stations tallied 5,593 hunters and a harvest of 266 elk, 47 mule deer, 124 white-tailed deer, three wolves and three black bears. During last year’s opening week 6,142 hunters reported 263 elk, 65 mule deer, and 146 white-tailed deer and six black bears.
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.