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Big Game Season Opener

With the Big Belt Mountains on the horizon, a hunter takes to the hills in search of big game. 'Most of the region is looking pretty good from an elk standpoint,' said Howard Burt, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist, but deer numbers are still below objective.

Hunter numbers and success were the lowest reported in the last five years at the Silver City check station near Canyon Creek this hunting season.

The season, which ended Nov. 30, saw nearly 2,200 hunters pass through what is typically one of the busiest check stations in the region. This year was the first in the last five years less than 3,000 hunters checked in, and more than 30 percent below the average, according to the harvest report.

A major cold snap over the last weekend sent temperatures plummeting below zero with low hunter numbers coming through Silver City. Over the last weekend, 173 hunters checked four whitetail deer, three mule deer and four elk.

The check station was closed one Saturday during the season and closed early the last Saturday due to few hunters coming through, both of which contributed to the low count, Jenny Sika, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist said on a voicemail message.

“We did have a lack of hunters this past Saturday presumably because it was so cold, and there was a winter weather warning,” she said. “The weather conditions were conducive to encouraging elk to move down to lower elevation and they did, but hunters weren’t out when I’d expect them to be.”

“Why hunters weren’t out would be a good question for the hunters,” Sika added.

Hunters at Silver City checked in 30 whitetail deer, 33 mule deer and 51 elk for a 5.2 percent success rate -- also the lowest over the last five years.

Overall hunter harvest along the Rocky Mountain Front also came in below average, but did see a higher elk harvest than last year, said Brent Lonner, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist. Overall averages were around 14 percent below average, with whitetails slightly below average, mule deer about 42 percent below average, but elk at 12 percent above average at the Augusta game check station.

Some of the low mule deer harvest was due to the elimination of antlerless tags, but hunters reported seeing fewer mule deer as well, he said.

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“It’s hard to say, but I don’t know that there was much of a shift from folks focusing on whitetail over mule deer,” Lonner said. “It seems to be that mule deer were scarcer to find, but right around Augusta and the Sun River Valley there’s still a lot of whitetail.”

The cold weather along the front did help with the elk harvest, although many elk remained in the backcountry, he said.

Elk typically migrate from the Bob Marshall Wilderness onto the Sun River Game Range to winter, but only 400 elk had left the mountains by the end of the season, Lonner said.

“That first cold snap really helped with ... hunting the Sun River elk,” he said. “But after that the weather wasn’t enough to make much of a difference.”

Hunters elsewhere across western Montana did see some higher than average success rates.

The Cameron check station near Dillon reported a 12 percent success rate, and more than 27 percent of hunters who checked in at Livingston took home game.

More than 9,200 hunters across Region 3 checked in 113 whitetail deer, 179 mule deer and 527 elk.

Hunting in Region 2, which includes the Blackfoot and Clark Fork valleys, saw lower hunter numbers, but harvest was up from last year. The Bonner check station near Missoula checked in 382 whitetail deer. Overall harvest of deer and elk was the highest since 2010 and came as hunter numbers dropped by 10 percent from last year.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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