Deer and elk harvest was down this hunting season in west-central Montana, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks says the numbers reflect conservative hunting regulations in many parts of the region, combined with the effect of relatively mild weather.
According to numbers collected at three west-central Montana hunter check stations, elk harvest was down 27% from last year and the five-year average.
Most of the region’s elk harvest is accounted for at the check station near Darby where harvest was down 24% from last year and 40% below the five-year average. Most hunters needed a permit, obtained through special drawing, to hunt for elk in the southern Bitterroot districts this year, due to elk numbers that are below objective.
“Unfortunately, a reduction in harvest like we saw this year in the Bitterroot is exactly what you hope to see with more restrictive hunting regulations,” says Mike Thompson, FWP Region 2 Wildlife Manager.
Elk hunters also faced more conservative regulations in districts west of Missoula and in the Blackfoot, but Thompson says that a cutback on hunter harvest is only part of the bigger picture for elk and deer management. Reduced hunter harvest, combined with an increase in harvest for large carnivores—including mountain lions, wolves and black bears—in many areas, and continued attention to habitat conservation, are part of a management strategy to build deer and elk numbers.
“We really appreciate the sacrifices that hunters are making and we want to see that pay off with some restored hunting opportunities in the future,” Thompson says.
Elk harvest in the Upper Clark Fork, near Deer Lodge and Anaconda, was down from 2011 due largely to a reduction in licenses for antlerless elk, but harvest is on par with the five-year average. Nearly 70% of the region’s antlerless elk harvest comes from these hunting districts where elk numbers are at or slightly above objective.
Elk hunters might have found more success region-wide if they had been given the advantage of snow to move elk down into more accessible areas, but a big batch of winter weather was not in the cards for hunters this season.
Snow might have also helped deer hunters with tracking, but hunters met few fresh snow days. For deer, check station data showed a mule deer harvest comparable to the 2011 season, but 45 percent below the five-year average, while white-tailed deer harvest was down 14 percent from last season and 27 percent below the five-year.
Deer regulations, like elk, are tightened in many parts of the region due to deer declines in recent years, but emerging data is starting to look promising for a whitetail population growth trend.
“The white-tailed deer buck harvest is trending gradually upward, which is really good news,” says FWP biologist, Jay Kolbe “We have been seeing more young bucks, which tends to indicate population growth.”
Check station data also reflected approximately 1,500 fewer hunter trips this year compared to last, and hunter trips were down 30 percent from the five-year average. Most of the decline was at the Darby hunter check station, where hunters faced the most changes in hunting regulations for elk.
“While there are a number of factors out there that probably influence a hunter’s decision on whether to head out, we are working on the variables that we can effect—like access and wildlife numbers—to get people out and enjoying the season,” Thompson says. “We want people to have a good opportunity to bring home a deer or elk if that’s what they are after, and that’s where we’ve set our sights in our wildlife management efforts.”
Nearly eight percent of hunters that stopped at one of the region’s three hunter check stations during the five-week season harvested an animal. Check stations tallied 14,189 hunter trips and a harvest of 397 elk, 164 mule deer, 536 white-tailed deer, five black bears, two moose, four bighorn sheep and five wolves.
Wolf rifle season continues through Feb. 28, and statewide wolf harvest totals sat at 81 on Monday morning, with 22 from west-central Montana. The general deer and elk rifle season closed on Sunday, Nov. 25.