Highs and Lows for Montana Hunters

By Beacon Staff

“Elk hunting is tough without snow,” Mark Priewert said.

Priewert, of Bigfork, was hunting near his camp by the Canadian border.

“It’s the first time in 30 years we haven’t had snow in camp,” Priewert recalled. While Priewert got his bull elk, low harvest numbers across the region and the state prompted Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to extend the elk season.

At the end of general big game season FWP was looking at an elk harvest down 29 percent. The agency, along with many hunters, pointed to the weather for the low success rate.

“I’ve been out every weekend,” said Kalispell hunter Vince Johns, “but I haven’t seen anything with horns until recently.” Johns brought in a yearling whitetail buck to the Swan check station on the last day of the season, Nov. 25. Snow at Thanksgiving came as a welcome relief.

“They really harvested a lot of deer in the last four days because the weather cooperated,” said John Fraley, spokesman for FWP. This year the state tacked two weeks onto elk season – stretching it to Dec. 9.

“It’s been decades, at least, since we’ve had an extended season in so many districts,” said Fraley. The extension included 75 districts across the state, and came with restrictions. In this area, Region One, the extension only applied to people who had already drawn a special permit for antlerless elk; hunters couldn’t apply for a new permit during the extended season.

As hunters pulled off the road at the Swan Highway’s check station on the last day of general hunting season, a passing motorist said, “Looks like the hunters outnumber the game.”

“At the beginning [of the season], there were a lot of complaints about lack of snow,” said Christian Meny, who recorded data at the Swan station. “The elk count is lower; we think guys really went high to get them – high altitude – because the snow hadn’t pushed them down yet.”

When a truck pulls up with a deer in back, one of the officials hops in. They measure the span of a buck’s antlers, take a sample tooth if they’re two and a half or older, and confirm the hunter has the proper tag for the right animal. They’ll also talk about what the hunter saw, and where they were hunting.

“The check station is a great place to contact hunters and find out what they’re seeing,” said Fraley. The number of deer brought in, the size of their antlers, their weight and age all help FWP track the health of the herd and create population goals for future hunting seasons.

“Based on our data,” explained John Fraley, “the whitetail populations in our region are at very high levels.” Fraley says the Mule deer numbers are stagnant, and the elk have steadily risen since they took a hit after the winter of 1996. FWP won’t have final numbers for this year’s elk harvest until spring after they complete a phone survey of hunters. Despite the mild weather the deer results were consistent with previous year, and whitetail numbers were up to 1,961 – the highest level since 1996. The number of hunters also was up this year, but 11-percent.

On Nov. 25, just a few hours before the Swan’s check station was shut down for the season, a truck drove by hauling something without legs, antlers, or teeth – a Christmas tree – a sign that hunting season is about to end.