Heavy snows combined with the rut to give hunters a successful whitetail deer harvest in Northwest Montana during the final week of elk and deer season.
Buoyed by that bountiful final week, the 2010 season saw one of the best overall harvests in whitetail bucks in years. Of the 1,055 whitetails harvested during the general rifle season, 888 were bucks, up from 797 last year with considerably fewer hunters, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Mule deer and elk harvests remained stable. There were 159 mule deer taken in Region 1, while 158 elk were harvested. Out of 17,564 hunters, 7.8 percent were successful, an increase from 6.5 last year.
Hunters did particularly well in the Swan Valley. A total of 3,384 hunters were counted at the Swan check station, accounting for 308 whitetails, eight mule deer and 24 elk – a 10 percent success rate.
FWP reminds that “counts at the six northwest Montana check stations represent a sampling of the harvest and do not represent the complete number of animals taken.”
On the final weekend of hunting season, 253 whitetail bucks passed through Region 1 check stations, a result of the improved conditions. The general rifle season ended on Nov. 28.
Jim Williams, wildlife manager for FWP Region 1, said snow and cold temperatures during the final week of hunting season prompted deer to move down to lower elevations. As a result, the animals were more accessible to hunters.
This year’s strong finish was welcomed after two slow years of deer hunting in western Montana, especially for whitetails. Harvest numbers teetered near records lows throughout the region in 2008 and 2009. Wildlife officials blamed the dip largely on harsh winters, which led to poor fawn survival rates. Predators, herd density and other issues also contributed to low kill rates for hunters, FWP officials said.
The low kill rates prompted revised hunting regulations. In Region 2, comprising the Missoula area, FWP eliminated over-the-counter antlerless deer tags and in Region 1 deer B tags were scaled back significantly for the 2009 season.
But FWP officials also saw reason to be optimistic following a strong fawn survival rate coming off last winter. According FWP, the fawn to adult ratio in Region 1 was 37 to 100, an increase of 13 fawns – or more than 50 percent – from the previous year. The improvement was in large part attributed to mild winter weather.
At the time, Williams expressed hope for long-term improvements in deer numbers.
“Our regional herd growth trajectory has begun to show an increasing trend again,” Williams said. “If this trend continues, it would translate to more deer and elk available to hunters.”
In order for population to continue to improve, fawn survival rates through this winter must be strong again, but biologists are already concerned with this winter’s early onset of cold temperatures and snow.
Fawns are most susceptible to winterkill and biologists will be monitoring their survival rate. Based on years of FWP radio-collaring efforts, biologists say adult whitetail does typically do fine during harsh winters.
Wildlife officials are also looking at the age classes of this year’s checked deer to give further clues into population trends.
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