Hunting in Montana, as Jeff Hagener describes it, is like soccer in Brazil.
“It’s not just a pastime, it’s our passion,” the chief of Montana’s fish and wildlife agency says.
There are 150,000 residents — more than 10 percent of the state’s population — who annually partake in the rite of hunting in Big Sky Country. It’s a state where roughly one-third of the landscape — 34 million acres — is public land and home to a suite of free-ranging wildlife, including deer, elk, bears and moose.
“The wildlife diversity here is unique, not just in the West but worldwide,” says Hagener, who’s back in charge of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “That’s why it’s such an honor to have this job.”
The arrival of September sparks the thrill of the hunt with the first opportunities for sportsmen and women. Upland bird seasons opened Sept. 1, big game archery season began Sept. 7 and the general rifle season for wolves opened Sept. 15. The excitement will reach a fever pitch when the rifle season for deer and elk opens for 37 days starting Oct. 26. This season runs later than last year, ending Dec. 1, which means hunters will have a better opportunity to catch deer in rut.
“This fall we should all take some comfort in knowing that our traditions are still being passed down to our children, that landowners are still opening their gates, that granddad will make it to hunting camp again, and that Montanans young and old are carrying the conservation torch into the future,” says Hagener.
“None of Montana’s richness of habitat, wildlife abundance and hunting opportunity is a result of happenstance. Rather they’re the result of personal sacrifice, a willingness to share, and an ongoing vision based on an idea that fish and wildlife conservation offers Montanans a way to stay connected to the outdoors in the most authentic way possible.”
northwest montana’s hunting outlook
“I’m excited about this coming season because I think it will be a really good one,” says FWP Region 1 Wildlife Biologist John Vore. “I’m anticipating a good harvest.”
FWP staff scanned more than 7,400 deer across Northwest Montana in the annual spring survey and reported a strong population of fawns and yearlings. There were an average of 43 fawns per 100 deer surveyed, Vore said. Last year there were 44. The fawn recruitment rates remain below the 30-year average of 48, but are encouraging and continuing an upward trend since a sharp decline occurred in 2009, Vore said.
“We’ve had a couple years where it’s been decent winters and we’ve had really good survival among whitetail fawns,” he said. “We’ve started to make a good recovery since our population low in 2009.”
Elk populations are doing great in some places and holding their own in others across Region 1, Vore says.
Bird populations are also faring well, and local populations of ruffed and spruce grouse are healthy and abundant thanks to favorable spring conditions.
“It’s a good year for grouse hunters,” he said.
The region centered on Kalispell is the second largest tract of public acreage, featuring 6.2 million acres, and fields more than 25,000 hunters annually, one of the highest marks in the state.
“This is a good year for wildlife, which means it should be a great year for hunters,” Vore said.
Wolf Hunt Resumes
The hunting season for wolves is underway and is expanded to six months this year. Rifle hunters and trappers can bag up to five wolves per person in areas except near Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. To the west of Glacier, a quota of two wolves has been set in that management unit, the same as last year.
The use of electronic calls by wolf hunters is now allowed. Snares and conibear traps are prohibited for trapping. Trappers must check their traps every 48 hours and immediately report any unintended animals caught in a trap, including domestic animals. Wolf traps must be set back 1,000 feet from trailheads and 150 feet from roads.
FWP urges hunters to avoid harvesting wolves with radio collars that provide researchers and managers with important scientific information.
New prospective trappers must attend a mandatory certification class. Trappers who successfully completed a wolf-trapping class in Montana or Idaho in the past do not need to retake one this year. Sign up for classes on FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov. Special permission is required to trap on DNRC and Plum Creek lands. For DNRC, trappers must obtain a free special recreation license by Sept. 30. For Plum Creek Lands, trappers must identify which lands they wish to trap at the FWP headquarters on North Meridian Road. For more information, call FWP at 752-5501.
Last season hunters and trappers tagged 225 wolves — 128 during general rifle season and 97 with traps.
It was an abundant berry season in Northwest Montana and that’s kept bears in the mountains enjoying their natural foods instead of roaming into urban areas. FWP received fewer calls this year regarding incidents, but a recent attack involving a hunter highlighted the persistent danger. Last week near Thompson Falls, a black bear wounded by a bow hunter bit the arm of the hunter’s companion before succumbing to its injuries.
FWP is cautioning hunters to be aware of grizzly and black bears that are increasingly active before hibernating in mid-December.
FWP Bear Management Specialist, Jamie Jonkel, says the Blackfoot Valley is one particular spot in western Montana where landowners and recreationists have reported a lot of grizzly and black bear activity recently.
“When traveling through dense brush, look for bear scat and signs such as bent over limbs on berry bushes, and do what you can to warn wildlife of your presence,” Jonkel says. “This can be hard to do because you don’t want the deer, elk or birds to know that you are nearby. Just do your best to find this balance and have your bear spray close at hand.”
Poaching Problems Persist
More than 1,000 poaching incidents have been reported across Montana so far this year involving deer, antelope, moose and other wildlife.
“This has been a bad year,” said Brian Shinn, FWP’s coordinator for TIP-MONT, the state’s toll-free 24-hour hotline for poaching and other wildlife violations. “There seems to be more reported cases as of this year.”
Shinn said poaching problems spread across the state and commonly occur near roads where people are shooting wildlife and leaving the animals untouched to rot.
“They’re not taking meat. It’s not for subsistence. They’re not even taking a back strap,” he said of poachers.
Last week state wildlife officials discovered an illegally shot and killed cow moose in the Hyalite area south of Bozeman. Wardens determined the moose had been shot twice, likely from the road. Moose hunting season did not open until Sept. 15.
The number of calls coming into TIP-MONT increases heavily during hunting season thanks to more sportsmen being afield, Shinn said, and thanks to callers, game wardens are able to investigate and hopefully catch those who are breaking the law. Callers who provide information about poaching incidents may remain anonymous and be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000. Last year, $18,000 went out to callers.
“Without the public, we couldn’t do it,” Shinn said.
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