Montana’s general deer and elk hunting seasons ended on Sunday with mixed hunter participation and success.
Hunter participation and success can be heavily influenced by weather, and severe winter weather over opening weekend limited hunter travel and access in some areas, but significant snowfall didn’t persist over the following weeks enough to cause elk to move to winter range in large numbers. That contributed to below-average hunter harvest than in some areas, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Southwest Montana’s Region 3 operated six game check stations during some or all weekends of the general deer and elk hunting season. Stations were located at Alder, Blacktail, Deer Creek, Cameron, Divide, Gallatin and Mill Creek. At these check stations, biologists met with nearly 5,000 hunters who harvested 69 whitetail deer, 113 mule deer and 338 elk, among other species.
Biologists use check stations to collect data on hunter numbers, success and wildlife observations, as well as the species, sex and age class of the animals harvested. This supplements data collected through hunter harvest phone surveys to gauge hunter participation and harvest.
Biologists observed below-average harvest of elk and deer at the Ennis check station this year. FWP checked 126 elk, 27 mule deer and 15 whitetails compared to longterm averages of 167 elk, 54 mule deer and 25 whitetails.
The number of hunters checked per day at the Gallatin check station has decreased measurably since the unlimited elk permit for Hunting District 310 was removed and the district returned to general license hunting.
The Alder check station checked about 800 hunters this year, which was similar to 2019 but well below the eight-year average for the check station. Peak hunter participation occurred during the first week of the season, then progressively declined. Elk harvest fluctuated throughout the season at about half of average during the first and third weekends, but substantially higher over the final weekend.
Biologists at the Divide check station met with nearly 1,400 hunters, who harvested 17 whitetails, 42 mule deer and 84 elk. The number of hunters here was down 8% from 2019 and 10% lower than the 10-year average. This year’s hunter success rate of 10.5% was 50% higher than 2019 and 13% higher than the 10-year average.
Hunters on a portion of the Rocky Mountain Front had below-average success this year.
“The mule deer harvest was 22% below the 10-year average and 36% below the 20-year average,” said Brent Lonner, FWP wildlife biologist based in Augusta. “Elk harvest was 44% below the 10-year average and 37% below the 20-year average.”
The numbers were collected at the Augusta check station and apply only to a handful of hunting districts on the Rocky Mountain Front.
Whitetails taken by hunters, however, were consistently above average all season. Overall harvest was the highest for at least the last 25 years, Lonner said.
“Antlerless whitetail deer harvest was 53% above the 10-year average,” Lonner said. “With about half the total whitetail harvest coming the last two weeks of the season.”
Hunter numbers were down with about 2,900 hunters stopping at FWP’s Augusta check station this year. That’s a drop of 22% from the 10-year average, and 16% below the 20-year average.
“Weather this season gave way to both extremes with two early winter blizzards and mild and windy weather in between and to end the season,” Lonner said.
Like whitetails, the majority of mule deer harvest occurred the last two weeks of the season, about the same time as the peak of the deer breeding season.
Elk hunters this year brought in 181 animals compared to the 10-year average of 325 elk; mule deer numbered 199 compared to the 10-year average of 254; and whitetails came in at 367 while the 10-year average is 305.
The Front is also popular with bighorn sheep hunters, who took rams to fill all 10 either-sex licenses in sheep hunting districts in the area. Average age of the 10 rams taken was 10.1 years old, which is considerably higher than the minimum average age of 7.5 years FWP tries to maintain for hunter harvested rams, Lonner said.
Lonner praised staff working the check station during COVID-19 precautions.
“Recognition needs to go to check station technicians: Houston Thompson, Ali Morgan, Laurie Stone and Kerry Bouchard,” he said. “Their efforts in helping collect biological data and be a key local source of information for hunters was certainly appreciated, especially with this year’s COVID-19 precautions. It certainly made for a different season, and the crew’s ability to adapt was appreciated.”
FWP’s west-central Montana check stations reported above-average hunter success in the Bitterroot and Upper Clark Fork, and lower success in the Blackfoot.
Hunter numbers at the FWP Darby, Anaconda and Bonner check stations were lower than average, partly a result of reduced staffing and hours of operation due to COVID-19.
Hunters that stopped through the stations reported above average success in some places. Hunters checked at Darby enjoyed the highest success at 7.8% since 2013, and at Anaconda at 9.8% in more than 20 years. Hunter success at Bonner climbed in the last two weeks to 8.3%, down only slightly from last year.
“We didn’t know what to expect this year, with all the influences of the pandemic at play, alongside the usual curveballs that weather can throw at hunters,” said Mike Thompson, FWP Region 2 wildlife manager. “All in all, we can say that nothing unusual stood out in this harvest sample, which tends to represent hunting effort on public lands.”
As far as total animals checked at the region’s three stations, harvest at Darby was on par with the past three years, totaling 169 elk, 29 mule deer and 72 whitetails.
Harvest at Bonner was down from recent years for all three species with 35 elk, 31 mule deer and 354 whitetails, although whitetail harvest increased in the past two weeks to finish at 97% of last year’s tally.
At Anaconda, the 35 elk harvested was higher than last year’s, despite the fact that the check station was closed in the third weekend due to illness. The mule deer of 16 and whitetail harvest of 26 at Anaconda were lower than last year, but within the normal range.
“Hunting regulations didn’t change much between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and last year was a mild winter,” Thompson said. “Given that, we hoped to see a harvest that tracked with last season, and we did with a few localized exceptions that we’ll follow up on with other survey work.”