Hunting Preview

2021 Hunting Field Guide

Prospects for bagging big game in Northwest Montana are looking up as the season kicks off with more hunters heading afield

By Tristan Scott
Cameron Wiseman bird hunts with his dog Boon at the Batavia Waterfowl Production Area on Oct 14, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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.

Although the general season for deer and elk doesn’t open until Oct. 23, the archery season for most big game opened on Sept. 4 and the general season for black bears and wolves began Sept. 15. Indeed, Montana boasts one of the longest hunting seasons in the U.S., and Northwest Montana has the second largest tract of public land in the state — 6.2 million acres — and hosts a diverse suite of free-ranging wildlife, including deer, elk, bears, wolves, mountain lions, and furbearers.

The public access available to hunters is augmented by the state’s Block Management Program administered by Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), which coordinates with private landowners to provide hunting access to an additional 7 million acres of private land.

When hunters do head afield this fall they can anticipate a healthy contingent of whitetail and mule deer, the result of back-to-back milder-than-normal winters that yielded good adult and fawn survival for white-tailed deer. Overall numbers should be similar or slightly higher than last year, according to FWP officials in Region 1, which encompasses Northwest Montana.

“For the second year in a row, Region 1 wildlife biologists generally observed more than 40 fawns per 100 adults during springs surveys,” according to the agency’s 2021 Big Game Hunting Forecast report. “This represents a large increase from the low 30s during the hard winters of 2017, 2018 and 2019 and is indicative of increasing whitetail numbers. Overall whitetail numbers should be similar or slightly higher than last year with a good number of yearling bucks on the landscape.”

The relatively mild consecutive winters also resulted in increased adult and fawn survival of mule deer, with an increase in young bucks this year. Hunters are reminded to check the regulations as only antlered bucks may be harvested in Region 1 and there are other areas that require a permit to hunt mule deer.

In areas where surveys were conducted, elk calf recruitment was similar to last year — relatively low compared to other parts of Montana, but above the five-year average for areas where surveys have been conducted in northwest Montana.

“Overall, elk numbers should be similar to last year,” according to FWP’s regional big game forecast. “Elk hunting is challenging in Northwest Montana due to difficult terrain, heavily forested areas and densities relatively lower than other areas in Montana. Elk distribution will likely change from now through the archery season and again during general rifle season due to changes in vegetation, snow levels and hunting pressure. Hunters are advised to do their homework and look for areas in the backcountry away from roads and high hunting pressure.”

The general season for deer and elk this year runs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 28, beginning after two youth-only days on Oct. 21-22. The five-week hunting season is among the longest in the country, and with ample wildlife and tags available each year, Northwest Montana’s Region 1 produces a robust annual harvest.

Following decreases in moose harvest and increases in hunters’ interest in pursuing moose, FWP reduced the total number of licenses available in Hunting District 105 from 20 to 12, and from four to two in Hunting District 121 for the 2021-22 season. Rather than rely solely on survey and harvest data to inform trends in moose numbers, FWP began collaring moose in HD 105 (and in two other study areas) in 2013. Despite the harvest statistics mentioned above, FWP has consistently seen higher numbers of moose, including calves, during collaring efforts in HD 105. 

“Thus far, the moose study has revealed that the Cabinet-Salish moose population is relatively stable although perhaps at lower overall numbers than historic highs,” according to the forecast.

Before heading out this fall, all hunters must be properly licensed and possess proper tags, with more information on licensing available on the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov/hunting.

Hunters seeking a black bear tag must also pass a bear identification test proving they can differentiate between black bears, which can be hunted, and grizzly bears, which cannot. In addition to online, hunting licenses and permits can be purchased at a number of Flathead Valley locations, including Sportsman & Ski Haus, Snappy Sport Senter and the regional FWP office in Kalispell. A full list of locations is available at fwp.mt.gov.

No matter what hunters are after, being bear aware is once again one of the best ways to ensure a safe return home. Bears are especially active this time of year as they prepare to den for the winter, and hunters are urged to carry bear spray at all times, hunt with a partner if at all possible, and carefully approach carcasses while looking for signs of recent bear activity.

Hunters are also urged to take special care to prevent wildfires, even as a recent bit of wet weather has led agencies to roll back previously imposed restrictions on campfires and other high-risk behaviors.

Several wildfires in the region are likely to persist through this year’s archery hunting season. Hunters should be prepared for the possibility of fire restrictions on National Forest lands. 

For the latest and most detailed information this hunting season, use the “Hunt Planner” at fwp.mt.gov under the Hunting tab. The planner allows hunters to search for hunting districts based on species and includes an interactive map.

As for where to find upland game birds, wolves, black bears, mountain lions, deer, elk and more, there are more than 90 million acres of public and private land to search through. Hunting on private land is only allowed if landowners provide consent. For those hunters who need a little stronger nudge to find their animal this year, FWP’s Regional Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson had a simple hint.

“About a mile away from a road, your chances improve exponentially,” Anderson said. “Elk have a tendency to avoid roads, especially during the hunting season, and usually that distance (from a road) is about a mile.”