BILLINGS — Hunters who stopped at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks check stations in south central Montana over the weekend reported signs that the annual deer rut is starting. The number of animals checked at Laurel, Columbus, Big Timber and Lavina generally was better than the same weekend last year. For the first two weeks of the season, the number of hunters was well above average, which drove the percentage of hunter with game to a long-term low.
More hunters have stopped at the Lavina check station so far this year than any of the previous nine years. Numbers of hunters have not translated into increased success, however.
FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Beyer said 271 hunters stopped at Lavina over this past weekend, up 17 percent from the same weekend last year. A total of 977 hunters have stopped at Lavina during the first three weekends of the 2013 general hunting season.
The number of deer and elk checked over the weekend was down, however, with only 16 percent of hunters bring home game. That compares to 24 percent last year and a long-term average of 31 percent for the third weekend of the season. For all three weekends, the white-tailed deer harvest is half of the long-term average while the mule deer harvest is down 47 percent and number of antelope killed is down 81 percent. Elk are the bright spot at Lavina with the harvest nine percent above average.
At the Columbus check station, all statistics took an uptick over the weekend. FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart reported that the number of hunters as well as the numbers of deer and elk harvested and percent of hunters with game all were above the same weekend last year.
The number of mule deer checked at Columbus was 34 percent below the long-term average for the first three weeks of the general season, but the white-tailed deer harvest was near average and elk numbers continued at a record high pace. Because the number of hunters who stopped at Columbus is running 25 percent ahead of the long-term average, the success rate was only 29 percent compared to an average of 41 percent.
At the Big Timber check station, the deer harvest picked up over the weekend compared to the third weekend of the 2012 season. For the entire season so far, however, deer, antelope and elk numbers are below the same period last year and well below the long-term average.
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh said the number of hunters who have stopped at the Big Timber check station this season is the highest on record while the percentage of hunters with game is at an all-time low – just 28.9 percent in 2013 compared to an average of 53.2 percent since 2003.
At the Laurel check station, 198 hunters had 50 deer and elk for a success rate of just 25 percent – well below the long-term average.
FWP wildlife research specialist Jay Watson said many hunters who stopped at Laurel said they had a hard time finding white-tailed deer to fill their B tags. Hunter observations are beginning to give FWP a clearer picture of the range and severity of an EHD outbreak earlier this year, he said. EHD is a fatal disease spread among white-tailed deer by a biting insect that was observed throughout south central Montana this past late summer.
The 2013 general deer and elk season runs through Dec. 1. Antelope hunting closed for the year on Nov. 10.
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 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.