Record precipitation the past winter and spring in northeast Montana decimated antelope herds and seriously depleted deer populations, but what can hunters in other regions of the state expect later this month when they take to the field for the state’s general big game opener?
There are localized exceptions but most Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologists echoed two basic themes: 1) Elk endured the rigors of heavy snows and rains better than their small cousins, white-tailed and mule deer; 2) mule deer are in a cyclic low throughout most of Montana.
In the Helena area (Region 3) the condition of game populations can vary significantly in hunting districts separated by only a few miles. According to FWP wildlife biologist Tom Carlsen, elk populations in the Big Belt Mountains east of Canyon Ferry Reservoir are fairly strong, but just to the west the elk inhabiting the Elkhorn Mountains haven’t fared as well.
“There are lots of elk in (hunting districts) 390, 391 and 392,” Carlsen said. “The thing we struggle with there is public access, especially in 390.”
For the Elkhorn Mountains, it’s a different story. “The Elkhorns are down a bit for elk due to weather and predation,” Carlsen said. “Coyotes, lions and, to a lesser extent, wolves all play a role in elk predation. I don’t want to get people alarmed that wolves are responsible for dropping elk populations in the Elkhorns because I don’t believe that’s true. Wolves travel through that area but there are no established packs.”
Carlsen said another factor in the Elkhorns winter survey numbers is people antler hunting on elk winter range. As a result, elk are pushed into the timber where they are not as easily counted during surveys, and in the timber elk are at an increased risk from wolf predation.
“We are also seeing lower calf production — in the lower 20s per 100 cows — and that is not enough to sustain a population,” he said.
Carlsen said that hunters in these districts can expect mule deer numbers consistent with the past couple of seasons. Whitetail deer, however, are continuing to improve from a low point that was the result of heavy snow, rain and flooding during the winter of 1996-97.
“Whitetail are doing real good along the Missouri River corridor according to our surveys,” he said.
Hunting districts that include portions of the Helena Valley and lands to the north hold good numbers of elk, and when it comes to mule deer, are even bucking the statewide trend.
“Elk population is over objective for (hunting district) 339 and within objectives for 343 and 335,” said FWP wildlife biologist Jenny Sika. “We were unable to survey 318, but I assume the elk are doing good there as well. We’ve being seeing good recruitment of elk calves across all those hunting districts.”
Mule deer numbers in Sika’s hunting districts have been a bright spot when compared to most of the rest of Montana.
“Mule deer numbers are close to the long-term average for this area,” Sika said. “Recruitment is also good with about 40 fawns per 100 does. It had been increasing since 2008 until this year, and now we’ve seen the numbers for 2011 back at average.”
Here’s a brief roundup of Montana’s other regions:
Region 1: Region wildlife manager Jim Williams said that elk numbers are for the most part stable throughout the region with some good news in the Swan Range.
“The Swan has been a bright spot,” Williams said. “We’ve been down in the Swan the past few years and recently we’ve seen a slight increase in numbers there. In the lower Clark Fork drainage, around Thompson Falls, there are good numbers of brow-tine bulls, but that’s steep country with thick cover and it makes for a tough hunt.”
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Williams said that mule deer populations are stable with 31 fawns per 100 does, but that whitetail deer are down as the result of some tough winters the past few years.
Region 2: Wildlife manager Michael Thompson said that the well publicized low elk population in the Bitteroot Valley is a condition that extends along I-90 west of Missoula and to the north side of U.S. Highway 200 from Missoula all the way to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Thompson said FWP is conducting a comprehensive study of the Bitteroot elk population.
“We know wolves and predation play a role there but we need to know if there are other factors present that are setting up the situation for low calf survival,” Williams said.
For the area between Missoula and Butte along the I-90 corridor, Thompson said: “We have never counted so many elk in that area. The problem there is very limited access for public hunting and the game damage that results from limited access.”
Thompson said Region 2 also has lower than average mule deer numbers but that managers are surprised by the high recruitment of whitetail fawns into the population.
Thompson surmised a wet summer allowed adults and fawns to put on a good layer of fat, which brought them through a rough winter in better than expected condition.
Region 4: FWP wildlife biologist Gary Olson said: “It appears we have a lot of elk throughout Region 4. Mule deer also came through the winter in pretty good shape as did whitetail. Olson said that outbreaks of epizootic hemorraghic disease (EHD) reported throughout much of central and eastern Montana haven’t shown up in Region 4.
“Usually if we have an outbreak of EHD we get a lot of phone calls reporting dead deer. but that hasn’t happened,” Olson said.
Region 5: Wildlife manager Ray Mule’ reported that elk numbers throughout his region are in good shape but that, as in the past, access to private lands will be the primary factor in limiting harvest.
“Mule deer numbers are down, but that’s a result of a cyclic trend that may have reached its low point,” he said. “Whitetail have been hit hard by EHD especially along the Mussellshell River and the Yellowstone River downstream of Columbus.”
Region 6: The winter of 2010-11 that ravaged pronghorn antelope populations in this region was also tough on mule deer.
“Mule deer are down, mostly north of Highway 200 and south of Glasgow,” said Region 6 wildlife manager Mark Sullivan. “Whitetails came through the winter in pretty good shape but unfortunately EHD took a real toll on whitetail, especially in the areas around Malta and Glasgow.”
Region 7: “Adjacent to Region 6, things are as bad as they were there,” said Region 7 wildlife manager John Ensign.
“As you get closer to Wyoming things get better. Across the region we’re about 20 percent below the long-term average for mule deer,” he said.
“Late summer outbreaks of EHD really hurt whitetail numbers, especially from Glendive to Sidney.”
Ensign said hunters lucky enough to draw a permit along the Missourri Breaks should have “robust” numbers of elk to pursue; hunters with access to the mostly private land in south Region 7 should also find plenty of elk.