Hunting Season is Here

Prospects for filling the freezer, tips for safety and reminders about dates, deadlines and disease

By Tristan Scott
Shutterstock photo

The arrival of autumn marks the beginning of big game hunting season, a beloved time of year for the thousands of Montana residents who partake in the rich tradition.

Montana boasts one of the longest hunting seasons in the U.S. This corner of the state has the second largest tract of public land — 6.2 million acres — and hosts a diverse suite of free-ranging wildlife, including deer, elk, bears, wolves, mountain lions, and furbearers.

Thousands of Montana archery hunters headed afield beginning Aug. 15 with their 900 series antelope hunting licenses, while on Sept. 7 archers set out to pursue deer and elk.

The northwestern corner of Montana features vast conifer forests spread across rolling topography and rugged mountains. Designated as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ (FWP) Region 1, this expansive landscape features millions of acres of public lands and private timber company land open to public hunting. While this region encompasses only about 10 percent of the state, it provides approximately 40 percent of the black bear, mountain lion and wolf harvests in the state each year.

White-tailed deer are the most plentiful big game species in the area, and approximately 20 percent of the state’s annual harvest occurs in the region.

However, recent winters have been hard on big game herds with three consecutive harsh, snowy seasons hurting recruitment rates. While the overall number of deer and elk remains stable across the region, hunters could experience lower harvest numbers compared to previous years due to this cycle, according to FWP biologists, who expect fewer younger white-tailed bucks in the population.

Still, this spring saw wet, cool conditions that created significant green forage throughout the summer. These conditions lead to excellent antler growth in both bucks and bulls and foster higher fawn and calf survival.

During spring surveys, FWP field biologists observed more bull elk than previous years in Hunting District (HD) 121. In HD 119, the number of bull elk appears above the five-year average.

Mule deer numbers in the Lower Clark Fork remain low but appear to be stable, according to biologists. Good mule deer habitat is limited in this region, and hunters wishing to pursue “muleys” should hunt the high country in the Cabinet Mountains for the best results.

In the Whitefish Range and North Fork, elk numbers appear low but stable relative to the past decade. Hunters can expect similar numbers of mule deer relative to the past 10 years, though they may encounter fewer mature deer due to poor recruitment. Data from collared mule deer in the Whitefish Range suggests better survival this past winter. Harvest data suggests that white-tailed deer numbers are relatively low in the North Fork, but observed recruitment was more than twice that observed the previous year and should keep populations stable.

In the Tobacco Valley and Stillwater drainages, overall resident elk numbers are down, though a mild spring and good green-up should have allowed for better recruitment. While mule deer numbers are in decline, hunters can expect to see a similar number of deer relative to the past five years. White-tailed-deer numbers are stable, and hunters should expect to see similar numbers of animals relative to last year.

In the Libby area, spring deer surveys suggest that white-tailed deer numbers in HDs 100, 103 and 104 are on par with what they were in 2018. This apparent stability was encouraging given the consecutive harsh winters. However, reproduction may have taken a minor hit recently, as 2019’s surveys show the ratios of fawns per 100 adults down in all three hunting districts, matching numbers from 2013. Thus, hunters should expect to see fewer younger deer this year.

Spring surveys in the Libby area showed that mule deer numbers in HD 103 have decreased only slightly and stabilized since their high total numbers and reproduction in 2013 and 2014. The recent mule deer research project is providing FWP with promising information regarding mortality: The mule deer does FWP collared in the Fisher River project area (part of HD 103) have the lowest mortality rates of mule deer amongst the three mule deer study areas. FWP personnel did observe some very large muley bucks in the higher elevations (above 6,200 feet) during mountain goat survey flights in the Cabinet Mountains.

Elk numbers around the Libby area appear fairly stable, and cow-to-calf ratios appear only slightly lower than the long-term average. While the numbers of total elk harvested in HD 103 has decreased slightly in the past five years, the proportion of harvested antlerless elk has nearly tripled.

The moose harvest in HD 105 has dropped over the past six years, since FWP moved to bulls-only regulations in the region. The average number of days until harvest was near the long-term average (17 days) until last year, when it increased (23 days). Despite these statistics, FWP has consistently seen a much higher number of moose, including moose with calves, during collaring efforts that occur a little later than surveys each year.

FWP has detected chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer in the Libby area, and hunters should be aware of the Libby Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Management Zone, which includes portions of HDs 100, 103 and 104. All deer, elk and moose harvested within the Libby CWD Management Zone, including any harvested with a Libby Special CWD Hunt B license and any harvested with any other type of license, must be checked and sampled within three days of harvest. Animals can be checked at either the new Libby Special CWD Hunt Sampling Station (Montana Department of Transportation shop on U.S. Highway 2, mile marker 35) or the Canoe Gulch Check Station. Hunters who quarter or bone out their animal in the field must bring the head for sampling.

Before Oct. 26, hunters who successfully harvest an animal are required to bring the head to the FWP Libby Office, 385 Fish Hatchery Rd. A collection site will be set up for hunters to self-report and submit the head for testing.

During general big game season (Oct. 26 to Dec. 1), the Libby Special CWD Hunt Sampling Station will be open every day from 11 a.m. to one-and-a-half hours after sunset. Hunters are only required to stop at the Sampling Station if they harvested an animal. The Canoe Gulch Check Station will be open weekends from 11 a.m. to one-and-a-half hours after sunset during the general season, and all hunters, with or without game, passing the check station must stop.

Hunters will be required to document the exact location of the kill. Animals will be tagged with a unique identification number. Hunters can use that identification number to look up test results on the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov/CWD. Test results are usually available within three weeks. Hunters who harvest an animal that tests positive for CWD may receive a replacement 2019 license