Deer Harvest Numbers Teetering Near Record Lows

By Beacon Staff

Deer harvest totals in many parts of western Montana are hovering near record lows, prompting state wildlife officials to consider revised hunting regulations for next season. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks already implemented new licensing regulations this year following last fall’s poor harvest.

Nobody is hitting the panic button yet, but Vivaca Crowser of FWP’s Region 2 says the current trends are cause for alarm. The general rifle season for elk and deer ends on Nov. 29.

“It’s definitely a concern,” Crowser said. “Something we may be looking at is more restrictive regulations.”

Last fall, check stations in western Montana reported whitetail and mule deer harvest numbers that were, in some areas, among the lowest in the past 15 years. As a result, FWP eliminated or cut back whitetail doe tags to put less strain on the population.

In Region 2, Crowser said over-the-counter antlerless tags weren’t issued this year. Region 2 covers the Missoula area, including the Bitterroot and Blackfoot valleys. In Region 1, which comprises northwest Montana, deer B tags were scaled back “almost to nothing,” said John Vore, an FWP wildlife biologist in Kalispell.

This season, hunters are killing even fewer deer, partly due to the new restrictions but mostly due to last year’s severe winter weather, a lack of snow this autumn and predators, biologists say. Harsh winters have led to low fawn survival rates over the past two years. Meanwhile, harvest numbers for elk, which are hardier animals, have remained steady.

Whitetail buck numbers are way down in Region 1. Through Nov. 22, check stations reported 549 bucks, the fewest at that point in the season since the record low of 478 in 1997. The mule deer harvest is also among the lowest in history.

With better weather conditions and the rut taking full form, a strong last week of the season could boost numbers. But even with such an increase, the season-end deer total is expected to be considerably lower than historical averages.

Severe winters, Vore said, appear to be the main culprit. Vore reached that conclusion after comparing three primary sections of the Region 1 hunting district: the Eureka area, the Swan region and the valley bottom’s agricultural land surrounding Kalispell. He reminds that not all check stations are reporting depleted whitetail and mule deer counts, but of the ones that are, some are reporting drastic drops.

Around Eureka, last year’s winter wasn’t as bad as in surrounding areas. The whitetail fawn survival rate was high there, Vore said, even with a healthy wolf population. In the Swan area, the winter was harsh and fawn survival was low. Bad winters are defined by both the intensity and longevity of weather – conditions that last into May wreak havoc on fawns.

Perhaps most telling is the Kalispell area, which is a welcoming home for whitetail deer with its fertile agricultural landscape and relative absence of predators. Coming off a tough winter, this spring’s fawn survival rate was the worst ever for the area, Vore said. Only the previous year’s fawns are counted, not “the little spotted guys.”

“That to me shows that winter is the biggest factor, not to say that wolves and mountain lions aren’t factors,” Vore said.

Vore points out that deer populations go through “natural cycles” and “are still higher than in the 1960s and 1970s for whitetails.” The population rebounded in the 1980s and reached record highs in the last part of the decade. But the 1990s brought decline.

Bad winters in the mid-1990s “exacerbated an already declining population,” Vore said. Region 1 reported 756 whitetail bucks killed in 1996 through four weeks and only 478 over the same time period in 1997, a 37 percent decline. Total whitetail numbers – bucks and does – plummeted from 1,527 to 723, more than a 50 percent drop.

But by 2003, Region 1 check station totals had surged to more than 900 for whitetail bucks through four weeks, compared to 549 this year. The mule deer harvest also peaked around the same time, with 319 taken in a four-week period in 2004. This year, only 152 were reported. Between 2004 and 2008, elk kills remained steady and this year has maintained the pace.

While check stations don’t account for every harvested animal, Mike Thompson, regional wildlife manager for Region 2, said the weekly reports are “pretty indicative” of overall hunting trends. In past years, check station totals have largely agreed with FWP’s findings after conducting year-end telephone surveys.

It won’t be clear if there will be any new regulations for next season until FWP holds its public meetings, beginning in January. During those meetings, wildlife officials listen to the concerns and suggestions of hunters, and then plan the upcoming hunting season accordingly.

“As of now, we aren’t proposing any drastic changes in the whitetail season,” Vore said.