Montana’s General Hunting Season Wraps Up

FWP check stations in northwest Montana recorded fewer hunters harvesting big game this year compared to last, though license sales indicate more hunters in the field

By Tristan Scott
Elk trot through a snowy field off of West Valley Drive in Kalispell on Nov. 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana’s general hunting season wrapped up beneath a blanket of fresh snow on Nov. 27, with hunters in the state’s northwest region returning from the field to report a slight downturn in the amount of overall big game harvested this year, according to preliminary check station results from Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).

According to the preliminary results, the four check stations in northwest Montana recorded 9,239 hunters who harvested 765 white-tailed deer — including 558 bucks — as well as 69 mule deer and 61 elk. The percentage of hunters with game at the four check stations was 9.7%, compared to 11.2% in 2021 and 8.5% in 2019. The agency did not staff check stations in 2020 due to the coronavirus.

Last year, check station records show hunters bagged 940 white-tailed deer — including 711 bucks — as well as 90 mule deer and 44 elk. 

Wildlife biologists emphasize that the harvest data is preliminary, however, and doesn’t provide definitive proof of declining populations of ungulates or hunter success rates. Instead, it’s one tool that helps biologists track monitoring trends and collect information on wildlife age, health, and other observations from the field. Telephone surveys, conducted over the upcoming winter months with hunters, will gather definitive harvest data and participation information.

A number of other factors could have figured into this year’s downturn in harvested game.

For example, check stations were only open on weekends during general hunting season from 10 a.m. to approximately one and a half hours past sunset and therefore sampled a small portion of overall hunter participation and harvests across the region. The regional stations are located at U.S. Highway 2 west of Kalispell, Montana Highway 83 north of Swan Lake, Highway 200 west of Thompson Falls, and Highway 93 near Olney.

According to FWP officials, hunting license sales have continued to increase or remained steady in recent years, both among resident and non-resident hunters. For example, year-to-date figures recorded between March 1 and Oct. 18 show a jump in non-resident hunting license sales from 52,356 in 2019 to 79,281 during the same period in 2021. The total number of hunting license sales also grew among Montana residents, from 121,982 in 2019 to 136,285 in 2021.

Those year-to-date figures capture license sales up to the week prior to the start of hunting season. FWP officials emphasized that license sales spike in the lead-up to the season, as well as in the first weeks of general rifle season, so the final tally of hunters is higher.

While the general hunting season is now over, hunters will still have opportunities into winter. Certain areas have continued elk hunting opportunities, and there is also Montana’s muzzleloader heritage hunting season for deer and elk, which runs Dec. 10-18. Any unused licenses or permits that are valid on the last day of the general season will remain valid during the muzzleloader heritage season, which has specific regulations.

Hunters can use plain lead projectiles and a muzzleloading rifle that is charged with loose black powder, loose pyrodex or an equivalent loose black powder substitute and ignited by a flintlock, wheel lock, matchlock or percussion mechanism using a percussion or musket cap.

The muzzleloading rifle must be a minimum of .45 caliber and may not have more than two barrels.

During the muzzleloader heritage season, hunters may not use a muzzleloading rifle that requires insertion of a cap or primer into the open breech of the barrel (inline); is capable of being loaded from the breech; or is mounted with an optical magnification device.

The use of pre-prepared paper or metallic cartridges, sabots, gas checks or other similar power and range-enhancing manufactured loads that enclose the projectile from the rifling or bore of the firearm is also prohibited.

Many of Montana’s Wildlife Management Areas have seasonal closures from Dec. 2 through May 14. Before heading to the field, hunters need to check the hunting regulations to make sure they are compliant. A list of WMAs and their seasonal closure dates is also available online.

Finally, hunters who harvested deer, elk or moose this season have until 5 p.m. on Dec. 3 to bring the animal’s head to the FWP office in Kalispell for chronic wasting disease (CWD) sampling. Testing for CWD is voluntary throughout the state. However, FWP is assisting hunters with sample collection and submission at the Region 1 office in Kalispell, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. FWP will cover the cost of testing hunter-harvested animals for CWD.

Contact a regional FWP office for more information. In northwest Montana, call (406) 752-5501.

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