Drought Could Bring Changes to Montana Hunting Season

Hunting this fall could be largely shaped by the widespread drought hitting the state

By TOM KUGLIN, Independent Record

HELENA — Hunting this fall could be largely shaped by the widespread drought hitting the state this summer, from potential access closures to impacts on wildlife fitness and location.

While some early hunts start in August, Montana’s hunting season really begins in earnest Sept. 4 with the start of the six-week archery season. On Oct. 23 general season kicks off for five weeks and ends the Sunday after Thanksgiving. And new for this year, traditional muzzleloader hunters will have their own nine-day season to chase elk and deer in December.

Most big game herds fared pretty well following a mild winter by Montana standards. Cold snaps remained relatively short-lived with little lower elevation snow. And hunter success hovered around average levels in most parts of the state.

Persistent drought this summer affected green up with many areas of Montana reporting stifled grass growth. That can mean less nutrition for elk, deer and other wildlife, the Montana State News Bureau reported.

“I think we’re seeing that doubled-edged sword,” said Brian Wakeling, Game Management Bureau chief with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “We did see a relatively mild winter and were looking forward to that with fawns and calves hitting the ground. But the real challenge for that of course is we’re also dealing with drought (and) fires. So while we might’ve seen some favorable winter survival, we may see some reduced survival in terms of recruitment and getting those young animals into adulthood.”

Montana’s wide expanses mean a variety of habitats and different species handle tough conditions better than others. Northeast Montana has seen a surge in mule deer populations so numbers likely remain favorable, Wakeling said. In the southeast, mule deer numbers are not quite as rosy.

Whitetails overall seem to be doing better than mule deer and elk tend to be less sensitive to extreme summer conditions, Wakeling said.

Lush grasses in the spring and summer are when animals bulk up for the stresses of fall ruts and winter, said Butte-area FWP biologist Vanna Boccadori.

“Any calves or young born this year are probably going to be pretty darn light going into the fall,” she said. “Adults just won’t have the fat, which can affect breeding potential so you could see this affect two generations of animals.”

While animals may see reduced weights due to the drought, Boccadori says hunters should still see solid numbers of deer and elk bolstered by the mild winter. She hopes that translates to some high hunter success rates to reduce competition for food during the winter.

“I hope we get a good harvest because if we have a hard winter we’re likely to have pretty decent winter kill,” she said.

Townsend-area FWP biologist Adam Grove anticipates similar trends for his management area in the Big Belts and Elkhorns. Hunters saw decent success last year and elk and deer populations continue to be robust, particularly in areas with limited hunting access, he said.

Hunters that drew limited either-sex elk permits for the Elkhorns reported 64% success with the average age of bulls being 7 years old. That is on par in terms of age structure and slightly above long-term averages for the hunting district, he said.

Seasonal population counts were difficult this year due to a combination of limited pilot availability and mild weather that left elk and deer widely distributed. Still, Grove shared similar concerns of what the drought could mean.

“Over-winter survival should’ve been good but obviously you may see some impacts from the drought conditions out there on reproduction and things like that,” he said. “With cows and does it can really depend on what sort of environment they’re in with native range quality and lack of forage in some cases. It wouldn’t be surprising to see lower calf and fawn crops.”

Wildlife on irrigated agricultural lands should be able to access better nutritional feed and probably would not see as many negative impacts, Grove said.

Biologists have also been wrapping up pronghorn counts. Unlike deer and elk that are traditionally counted on winter range, pronghorn are counted during the summer. Both Wakeling and Grove reported very low fawn numbers likely tied to the drought.

“The jury is still going to be out with the effects of the drought but we do have some concerns with the recruitment we’re seeing there,” Wakeling said of antelope.