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2017 big game hunting forecast

Hunting - Region 7

Wed Aug 30 08:18:00 MDT 2017

Hunting fever starts early. It might be a few midnight dreams, or maybe you find yourself scrolling through the Cabela’s website after dinner instead of paying bills.

Pretty soon you’re thinking about hunting most of the day. Mentally going over maps instead of work-related powerpoints, pushing yourself out of bed for an early workout, not because it’s good for you, but because you need to get into hunting shape.

A key part of your hunting season preparation should be researching animal population trends and data from the past year. That’s where we step in to help. The following big game forecast will give you some very valuable information for planning your hunt. But it’s only a small piece of what Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks offers Montana hunters.

On our website you can find information about hunting access, including our very popular Block Management Program, where we coordinate with landowners to provide hunting access to more than 7 million acres of private land.

Online we have our interactive Hunt Planner map that allows users to look at information for various species, including hunting districts and regulations. The hunt planner interactive map also is a great way to access our block management information, so if you’re planning a hunt in a certain area, you can see if there are Block Management Areas available to expand your opportunity.

And, as always, you can contact our helpful staff at any of our regional offices around the state. They’re happy to help and can often get you pointed in the right direction with just a few simple tips.

Montana is really an amazing state in which to hunt. We have some of the longest hunting seasons in the West, healthy herds of game and access to millions of acres of public land. However, hunters must be mindful of drought and fire danger. With the severe to exceptional drought extending across much of the state, hunters should be mindful of private landowners who are facing grass shortages, poor crop production and fatigue from monitoring for fire. Hunter harvest is helpful during a drought to reduce wildlife densities on a stressed landscape, and perhaps to help lessen winter depredation on hay stacks or winter range. 

A few things hunters can do to show respect for private landowners during the drought include: avoid vehicle use in areas with dry grass in the median, use caution when parking in areas with dry vegetation, report smoke or any signs of fire to local officials, and carry a fire extinguisher or water to quickly snuff any potential fires.

Destination: SOUTHEAST MONTANA

The badlands, farmland and rolling prairie of southeast Montana is home to a vast number of animals, including rapidly rebounding populations of mule deer, near-average antelope numbers and a growing number of elk.

Mule deer in the region continue to be on a strong upward trajectory from their low point in 2012.  Following back-to-back severe winters in 2009-10 and 2010-11, mule deer numbers bottomed out at 61 percent of long-term average. Spring 2017 surveys indicate populations are 45 percent above long-term average. 

 “In just five years, we’ve gone from extremely low to extremely high deer numbers,” said FWP biologist Melissa Foster. “The age structure of the population continues to improve. Early in that recovery, the population was heavily skewed toward younger age classes; we had lots of yearlings, lots of 2-year-olds, but fewer mature deer. That’s perfectly natural. It’s a result of the boom in production following the population decline.”

“With fewer mouths on the landscape, almost everyone enters winter in good body condition,” Foster explained. “They’re able to find winter browse and thermal cover, resources are essentially unlimited and fawn production and survival rates are extremely high.”

Going into the 2017 hunting season, biologists expect that there still won’t be many old deer on the landscape. Deer in the 6 to 8-year-old range would have survived as fawns or been born following the severe winters when fawn production and survival rates were low. Five-year-olds this year would have been born in 2012, a year with good fawn production but low numbers of deer. Numbers of 3 and 4-year-olds will be better, and there will once again be high numbers of yearlings and 2-year-olds.    

“We have probably hit a high point for deer numbers,” Foster said. “At 45 percent above the long-term average, habitat degradation is already beginning to occur. The drought this year means that deer will enter winter with fewer fat reserves than prior years. Huge numbers of mouths on the landscape means that it will be more difficult for deer to find good winter browse and thermal cover.” 

Habitat is important and high numbers of deer can have an effect.

“Deer can and do have the ability to eat themselves out of house and home,” said John Ensign, FWP Region 7 wildlife manager. “When deer numbers are high like they are right now, they impact winter browse. As that browse component declines, so does the number of deer that the landscape can support.” 

 “It’s counterintuitive,” said Foster. “But the best thing that we can do oftentimes to improve deer numbers is to harvest more deer.” 

Good harvests can mean better deer health through the winter and into spring because the habitat can better handle the pressure.

“The antlerless mule deer quota this year was increased to 11,000, which means there’s plenty of opportunity for hunters to fill their freezers while helping to maintain herd health,” Ensign said.

Whitetail numbers have held steady in southeast Montana. Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) outbreaks have been localized in scale and small in magnitude since 2012. Local hunters will recall the last major EHD outbreak in 2011, which caused heavy mortality in whitetails throughout many parts of Region 7.

“We are at a good place right now with whitetail numbers,” Ensign said. “As deer densities increase, the risk of major EHD outbreaks increases. The disease is transmitted by a biting midge. When you get deer in close proximity, it’s an ideal situation for disease transmission.

“It’s impossible to stockpile wildlife, including whitetails,” he said. “Whether in the form of disease, drought or harsh winters, Mother Nature always intervenes.”

Hunters who do their homework by scouting and visiting with private landowners should have success locating good areas to hunt whitetails.

Montana antelope populations are for the most part continuing to recover and grow from previous years' winter kills and low fawn numbers in central and eastern Montana.

Summer production surveys indicate that southeast Montana antelope numbers have increased 74 percent from the low in 2012, and are now hovering near the region-wide long-term average.

The total count across the region is slightly below last year. Antelope numbers in the northeastern portion of the region are near long-term average. Populations north of Hysham and Forsyth are still somewhat depressed. Individuals who know that area and typically hunt it may still find success there, but groups looking to harvest does may do better to focus their efforts in the southeastern portion.

In the western portion of the region, antelope numbers have improved since 2012 but remain well below historic averages. Antelope numbers are best in the southern portion of the region.

This year, just like last, FWP is offering more licenses than in the previous few years, which reflects the improving population.

These are good times for elk hunters, as Montana elk populations continue to be strong across most of the state. In many hunting districts, however, access to private lands can be difficult, which can affect hunting success given landownership patterns and distribution of elk.

Even if you didn't draw a special permit this year, remember that Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for elk with just a general hunting license.

The most recent winter surveys indicated that elk in southeast Montana are continuing moderate growth and gradual expansion into unoccupied available habitat. FWP biologists observed strong calf recruitment (52 per 100 cows) and an excellent composition of bulls (40 per 100 cows).

The Missouri Breaks (hunting district 700) and Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, 705) remain the two “core” elk populations. Outside of these areas, elk numbers across the region are low, distribution is spotty and elk are primarily found on private land where public hunting access is limited.

Bull hunting is by permit only in HDs 700, 702, 704, 705 and the far western portion of 701. In HD 703 and in the rest of 701, hunters can pursue either-sex elk with a general license.

New starting in the 2016 hunting season is the 007-00 B license. This license is valid for antlerless elk throughout Region 7 except for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Custer National Forest. An easy way for hunters to remember where they can use the 007-00 antlerless elk license is that it’s valid everywhere expect what is green on a Bureau of Land Management ownership map (green being national forest or federal wildlife refuge areas). It is important for hunters to note that there are no elk shoulder seasons in any of the hunting districts in Region 7.

Additional antlerless opportunities exist in the region via a general and/or B-license, and hunters are encouraged to review the regulations for more details on those opportunities.

Hunters should be aware that the Lodgepole Complex fire burned over 225,000 acres in the western portion of HD 700 (and 45,000 acres in HD 701). Much of the area that burned in HD 700 was timbered elk habitat; however, roughly two-thirds of the elk habitat in HD 700 was not burned (the northern boundary of the fire was near Squaw Creek). Further, within the burn perimeter there is a mosaic of small pockets that were not burned, and areas where the fire did not reach the crowns of the pines. Pending additional moisture and some cool-season grass regeneration, hunters might still have success finding elk within the burn perimeter