BILLINGS — Warm temperatures, calm winds and clear skies brought hunters to the field in south central Montana over the weekend – the first time this year that hunter numbers have exceeded last year’s count.
All three regional check stations run by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reported more hunters than the same weekend a year ago.
At the Columbus check station, FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart reported the most hunters and largest number of white-tailed deer for any weekend so far this year – and far more than the same weekend in 2011. However, the percentage of hunters with game was down from a year ago.
On Saturday and Sunday, 239 hunters stopped at the Columbus check station. During the same weekend last year, only 128 hunters appeared. Hunters checked 63 white-tailed deer, compared to 36 in 2011. They had 39 mule deer, the same number as a year ago.
The white-tailed deer rut is in full swing, so half of the checked animals were bucks, including many large bucks, Stewart said.
At the Lavina check station, FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Beyer checked 280 hunters – 20 more than the same weekend last year. The deer harvest was nearly identical to 2011, however, with 25 white-tailed deer (the same as last year) and 33 mule deer (one more than in 2011) checked. Overall, 24 percent of hunters who stopped at Lavina had harvested animals, down five percentage points from a year ago.
Of the deer checked, 72 percent of muley bucks and 63 percent of white-tailed bucks were 2.5 years old or older.
At Big Timber, FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh reported that the number of hunters was up sharply over last year – 142 this past weekend compared to 108 during the fifth weekend of the general season in 2011. The deer harvest was nearly identical to last year, with 32 white-tailed deer (same as last year) and 29 mule deer (one fewer than 2011) counted. For the weekend, 43.7 percent of hunters had harvested game compared to 63 percent a year ago.
With the rut in full swing, 97 percent of checked mule deer and 66 percent of white-tailed deer were antlered bucks.
For the first five weekends of the season, the number of hunters and harvested deer still are well below the long-term average in south central Montana. With a week of the season left, hunter numbers are 85.7 percent of the long-term average. The white-tailed deer havest is at 84.4 percent of average and the mule deer harvest is only 52.1 percent of the long-term trend.
At the three regional check stations operated each weekend of the general big game season, 29.1 percent of hunters have had harvested game, compared to a long-term average of 36.3 percent.
The elk harvest is a bright spot in south central Montana, with hunters bringing home 12.7 percent more game than the long-term average.
The general big game season runs through Nov. 25.
FWP operates check stations throughout the antelope and general big game seasons to gather biological information about the state’s herds and hunting conditions. Game wardens also check some hunters at the stations for compliance with state laws.
All hunters are required to stop at any check station they pass either on the way to or the way home from the field, whether or not they have harvested game.