When Paige Palin saw the three bull elk with a cow nearby on the MPG Ranch, she knew it was time to “put the sneak on them.”
With her step-father Randy Sacks and MPG’s Craig Jourdonnais, they got close enough for Palin, 13, to seal the deal with a perfect shot right behind the cow’s shoulder. The kill was part of the MPG Ranch’s youth hunt program, and her mother Chrisy Sacks said she purchased the opportunity at the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association's conference.
It was the Corvallis Middle School student’s first elk. Palin watched closely as the cow ran a short way and she chambered another bullet in her pink .243 rifle, but didn’t need it.
“We watched her go into the timber and roll down the hill,” Palin recalled. “I sat there and smiled, and asked Randy if she was down. I just about screamed because I was so excited.”
Rebecca Mowry, a wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said she’s seeing quite a few other hunters with harvested elk so far this season.
“We are definitely up,” Mowry said. “The way it looked at the (Darby) check station, the numbers are up and the hunters are more successful.”
She expected that for two reasons. The first is last year’s snow came fairly late in the season, so it didn’t push the elk down from the higher elevations.
“We’re way ahead of that this year,” she said. “And because it was a bad year last year, there’s more elk on the landscape now. There’s also more bulls because of the low bull harvest last year.
“There are still a lot of hunters finding success on public lands.”
Ninety-three successful elk hunters passed through the Darby game check station last weekend, compared to 75 in 2016. The number of mule deer taken was up slightly — eight this year compared to five last year — but that’s still down from 2014 and 2015. The number of white-tailed deer that were bagged also was down from previous years, with 13 taken compared to 22 last year.
“The low mule deer numbers were expected because everything in the Bitterroot is on permit. Mule deer numbers were low for a while, but they’re up from last year,” Mowry said. “With the white-tails, I’m a little less sure what’s going on; it could be that everything else was restricted previously, so the only thing left to hunt were the white-tails.”
She noted that white-tailed deer populations typically rebound fairly quickly.
The weekend weather should aid hunters, with anywhere from one to two feet of snow expected in the mountains surrounding the Bitterroot Valley, according to Trent Smith with the National Weather Service.
“It won’t come all at once; this is really a drawn-out weather system,” Smith said. “We’re looking at off and on snow for days on end. Some hunters may like it because it should help push some animals to lower elevations.”
He cautioned hunters to pay attention to the weather forecasts, and be sure to “bust out the chains” to get back out of the mountains if the snow becomes heavy while they’re at higher elevations.
Smith added that high temperatures are only expected to reach the mid 30s, with lows in the teens overnight.
“We haven’t really experienced this kind of system in early November for a while,” Smith said. He doesn’t expect the valley to see much snow, but “definitely the Sapphires and Bitterroots will see 12 to 24 inches.”