2023 Big Game Hunting Forecast

Prospects for bagging big game in Northwest Montana are similar to last year as the season kicks off with archery hunters already heading afield

By Tristan Scott
Fish, Wildlife and Parks Warden Chris Crane demonstrates how to affixed a hunting tag to a fake deer during a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ hunter education course at the Les Bauska Target Range north of Kalispell on March 7, 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. 21, the archery season for most big game opened on Sept. 2 and the general season for black bears and wolves begins Sept. 15. 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 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), which coordinates with private landowners to provide hunting access to an additional 7 million acres of private land.

Big game check stations will be open in Region 1 on weekends during the general season — Highway 2 west of Kalispell, Highway 83 north of Swan Lake, Highway 200 on the west end of Thompson Falls, and Highway 93 near Olney. The Canoe Gulch check station near Libby is no longer in operation and has been replaced by the Libby chronic wasting disease (CWD) sampling station located on the south end of Libby. Hunters are required to stop at game check stations but stopping at the Libby CWD sampling station is voluntary.

In recent years, FWP has detected CWD in white-tailed deer, mule deer and moose in the Libby area. Hunters need to be aware of the Libby CWD Management Zone (MZ) and its boundaries, which includes portions of HDs 100, 103 and 104. In 2020, a single CWD-positive whitetail buck was detected outside the MZ near the Thompson Chain of Lakes, and another CWD-positive deer was discovered outside the MZ in 2021.

Hunters are encouraged to submit samples for testing, particularly in the Libby CWD MZ, so FWP can better assess the status of CWD in northwest Montana.

Visit fwp.mt.gov/conservation/chronic-wasting-disease for more information.

White-tailed and mule deer

Whenever hunters decide to head afield this fall, they can anticipate a healthy contingent of white-tailed and mule deer bucks due to three years of solid recruitment. Although big game recruitment in the region varied last winter, particularly for white-tailed deer who struggled through early snow and hardpack conditions that persisted throughout the season, recent years have yielded stable adult and fawn survival for both white-tailed deer and mule deer. Overall numbers should be similar or slightly higher than last year, according to FWP.

“Region 1 wildlife biologists generally observed white-tail recruitment this spring, ranging from 17 to 45 fawns per 100 adults during springs surveys. Overall whitetail numbers should be stable to increasing across the region, and hunters should see a fair number of bucks this fall due to three years of solid recruitment,” according to the 2023 Big Game Hunting Forecast. “FWP expects deer numbers to decline in areas below 35 to 40 fawns per 100 adults, primarily in HDs 101, 110, 120 and 130, but be stable to increasing in the much of the rest of the region.”

Mule deer numbers also appeared to be stable to slightly increasing over the past two years with buck harvest increasing in the region since 2017. This spring, fawn recruitment in the Fisher River drainage produced 28 fawns per 100 adults, suggesting a slight downturn in population growth. Antlered bucks (a deer with an antler or antlers at least 4 inches long as measured from the top of the skull) may be harvested in Region 1. The North Fisher area in HD 103 requires a permit to hunt mule deer.


Elk numbers should be similar in Region 1 to last year. Elk hunting is challenging in this corner of the state due to difficult terrain, heavily forested areas and elk densities relatively lower than some areas in Montana, according to FWP officials in Region 1, which encompasses Northwest 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 look for areas in the backcountry away from roads and high hunting pressure. Calf survival in the Thompson Falls (Hunting District 121) and Lost Trail (Hunting District 103) areas was 31 and 33 calves per 100 cows, respectively, which is above long-term average.

“Calf recruitment in these areas was the highest observed since the early 2000s and the long-term average is 21 calves per 100 cows,” according to FWP’s 2023 Big Game Hunting Forecast. If maintained, this ratio should result in a growing elk population. Calf survival in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area was 15 calves per 100 cows, which is up from previous surveys but still below the level indicative of an increasing population. 


FWP began collaring moose in Hunting Districts 105 and 106 (and in two other study areas) in 2013. So far, the moose study has revealed that the Cabinet-Salish moose population is relatively stable although perhaps at lower overall numbers than historic highs. Similar trends in moose populations are likely in most of Region 1. Visit fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/moose for more information.

Black Bear

Northwest Montana experienced high black bear harvest in 2021 and 2022, exceeding 700 bears per year in Region 1. Overall, black bear numbers may be down somewhat in northwest Montana. Berry crops appear to be good in most areas and bears may be dispersed at the start of the black bear season. Hunters should seek areas with abundant food sources like huckleberries, serviceberries, chokecherries and mountain ash.

All successful bear hunters are required to report the harvest within 48 hours on the Harvest Reporting Line (1-877-FWP-WILD or 406-444-0356) or through the MyFWP portal. Successful hunters in Region 1 are required to submit a premolar tooth, the sex of the harvested bear, bear management unit number and general location of the harvest within 10 days of harvest. This regulation applies only to Region 1. Hunters in other regions are required to submit the hide and skull to an FWP official within 10 days of harvest so FWP can collect a tooth for aging. The tooth will be sent to a laboratory where the age of the bear will be determined. FWP biologists use this age information, along with the sex of the bear, to manage bear populations in Montana. Currently hunting black bears with hounds is not legal in Region 1.


Northwest Montana has abundant wolf numbers and recent population estimates indicate a slightly declining wolf population. The 2022 harvest was down from 2021, but populations appear healthy. Recently, the Fish and Wildlife Commission made a couple hunting and trapping season changes. Hunters and trappers are encouraged to closely check regulations and the FWP website for these changes. Despite good numbers, wolves can be difficult to find, don’t always move as a pack and often move long distances. If hunters want to be successful, scouting and understanding wolf behavior is important. Visit fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/wolf for more information.

Mountain Lion

Northwest Montana has abundant mountain lion numbers. For the 2023 season, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved and increased harvest in efforts to reduce lion densities up to 40 percent. Overall, the general regulations didn’t change from 2022 and hunters are encouraged to review the 2023 mountain lion regulations to evaluate hunting opportunities.

For any further questions, consult your local area biologist or the 2023 hunting regulations.

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.

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