Hunting Picks Up, But Harvest Counts Still Lag

By Beacon Staff

Following a slow start, deer hunting in northwest Montana has picked up over the past two weeks, due more to the arrival of rutting season than favorable weather conditions. A lack of snowfall continues to hurt productivity in some areas, and check station counts for whitetail bucks and total mule deer are still well below the past decade’s average.

A mild winter, combined with the low fawn survival rate following last year’s harsh winter, significantly limited whitetail and mule deer harvest numbers throughout western Montana during opening week of general rifle season, which began on Oct. 26. Elk numbers were also down, though less dramatically.

According to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, check stations recorded 339 whitetail deer and 53 mule deer during opening week. The total for whitetails was the fourth-lowest since 1996 and 173 fewer than last year’s opening week, while the mule deer count was a 13-year low. The 113 whitetail bucks was also the lowest figure in 13 years. The elk total was 68, the lightest haul since 2003.

Through the second week and into the third week, check stations began recording higher numbers, though the mule deer total of 135 is still a 13-year low and the whitetail buck count is the fourth-lowest since 1996. Elk totals are nearly identical to last year. The number of hunters taking to the field has been relatively consistent with past averages throughout western Montana.

Hunters are required to stop at all check stations they pass on their way to or from hunting regardless if they have any animals, though not everybody knows that. Check station numbers represent only a sampling of animals harvested in an area, but they provide biologists with a solid base to understand trends on an annual basis.

Region 1 biologist Jim Williams said the slow early harvest was due to a combination of poor climate conditions and last year’s harsh winter, which resulted in a subsequent poor fawn survival. Thus far, winter has yet to hit the Flathead hard, giving deer and elk less reason to leave the mountains and come out into more accessible areas. Snowfall drives game animals into new terrain and, as a general rule, good hiking weather means poor hunting weather.

Region 1 isn’t the only area seeing low numbers. Just east in Region 4, total harvest counts are down from last year for antelope, deer and elk. In Region 2, which encompasses the state’s west-central portion around Missoula, whitetail and mule deer numbers have been especially low.

Through two weeks only 398 whitetails had been recorded in Region 2, compared with 469 last year and 684 the year before. The mule deer total of 145 is well below the average of 232 over the last four years. Southwestern Montana has also experienced a slower season.

Like in northwest Montana, low game numbers around Missoula are being attributed to poor hunting conditions. The Bonner check station had recorded only 1.4 inches of snow through the first two weeks, compared to an average of 9.1 over the past four years.

If snowfall increases, hunting is expected pick up through this week and into Thanksgiving. Furthermore, rutting season should continue to boost harvest numbers through the remainder of general elk and deer season, which ends on Nov. 30.