Hunter Numbers Down Across West-Central Montana

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After week two of big game rifle season, check station totals show decreased hunter participation across west-central Montana compared to 2010 and the five-year average.

“We’ve seen less hunters in the field this season, primarily in the southern Bitterroot, and a large reason for this is the really restricted hunting regulations in district 250 (the West Fork),” said Mike Thompson, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 2 Wildlife Manager. “We know that these restrictions have a big impact on individuals and families that are used to hunting the West Fork, and now our check station numbers are showing us just how much it is decreasing overall hunter participation in this part of the Bitterroot.”

The Darby check station, which monitors the southern Bitterroot hunter numbers, has checked nearly 800 fewer hunters this year compared to last and nearly half of what it did five years ago.

“Hunters are getting the message that opportunity is more limited than what it has been in this part of the valley, and many of them are staying home or going elsewhere,” said Craig Jourdonnais, Bitterroot-based wildlife biologist. “We’ve gone to permits for mule deer in more areas and have very restricted elk hunting in the West Fork where elk numbers are down.”

Thompson said that it is also not unusual for hunters to slow down a bit during this point of the season. “We haven’t had a big dump of snow yet to get the animals moving and we’re still waiting for the rut to really pick up.”

Although the Bonner check station has been slower than last year for hunter numbers, the station has still checked 66 elk so far this year, compared to 56 at this same point of the season last year.

Elk harvest and hunter participation has been strongest in the Upper Clark Fork near Deer Lodge and Anaconda, where elk populations are at historic highs and hunting regulations have been liberalized accordingly.

“Many of these elk are on private land, where hunters must have permission, making reaching harvest goals difficult in some cases,” Thompson cautioned.

But, wildlife biologist for the Upper Clark Fork, Ray Vinkey, reports 50 elk so far this season, compared to 44 in 2010 and 33 five years ago.

Harvest for mule deer and white-tailed deer is down from last year and the long-term average in most parts of the region.

“Mule deer populations are down region-wide and even across much of the western United States right now,” said Thompson. “Mulies tend to go through broad ups and downs on a continental scale, and the last time we saw this down was in the mid to late 1990s.”

FWP has instituted tighter hunter regulations in many districts as a result.

White-tailed deer has been slow partially due to suppressed populations in some areas and corresponding conservative hunter opportunities for antlerless whitetails, and partially due to it still being early in the season.

At the Bonner check station, which accounts for most of the west-central Montana white-tailed deer tallies, hunters have been reporting seeing a lot of does and fawns, but they are not seeing bucks with them yet, an indication that the rut is not fully underway in most areas.

“In the next few weeks, we should see a lot of bucks through the Bonner check station if things go like they usually do,” Thompson said.

Hunter check stations are also tallying the wolves that happen to pass through this season for the second time in Montana history. Hunters have taken 54 statewide since archery season opened Sept. 3, and 12 of those were harvested in west-central Montana’s Region 2. The state quota is set at 220 wolves, and hunters must report their wolf harvest within 12 hours.

Overall, during the first week of the season, 7.5 percent of hunters that passed through one of the region’s three hunter check stations harvested game. The stations tallied 7,356 hunter visits and a harvest of 311 elk, 68 mule deer, 160 white-tailed deer, five wolves, four black bears, two moose and one mountain goat. During last year’s opening week 8,281 hunters reported 302 elk, 91 mule deer, and 194 white-tailed deer, eight black bears, two moose and two mountain goats.

Hunters are reminded that they must stop at all check stations that they pass on their way to or from hunting—even if they have not harvested any animals. The general rifle season for deer and elk runs through Sunday, Nov. 27.


hunter25's picture

I agree with the other guys

I agree with the other guys here. I'm sure there are other contributing factors to the decline but I bet those new fees are a big one. I have been considering going to Montana for some time now but I doubt it with such a large increase. Maybe for antelope someday but I had wanted to do it as a combo deer hunt but that tag is just too much when I can get it for much cheaper somewhere else along the way. Using a voter initiative like this it was sure to happen as people always like to complain about the non resident taking thier animals. But many forget they like to hunt other places also and would not like the same scenario for them. Plus many probably think this will stall future increases on the resident tags but I bet thoae will continue to rise as well.

Retired2hunt's picture

  I would like to see the


I would like to see the results of the total non-resident licenses sold after the 2011 season.  Looking on their DOW web site it looks like most non-residentlicenses increased $200 to $300.r .. and all for wildlife management... i think the state is trying to put the onus on the non-resident to support the state's management program... I don't think this is right.  Here is what the state has to say...

"With the passage of voter Initiative 161 in November 2010, the cost for Montana's 2011 Nonresident Big Game and Deer Combination licenses will increase. Under the new voter-approved law, the following changes go into effect March 1, 2011:

  • Outfitter Sponsored Variable Priced licenses, also known as the Outfitter Guaranteed licenses, are no longer available and the quota for those licenses are now in the general category.
  • A total of 17,000 Nonresident Big Game Combination licenses, and 4,600 Deer Combination licenses, are now available via a general application process.
  • Fees for Nonresident Big Game (Elk and Deer) Combination license increase from $643 to $912.
  • Fees for Nonresident Deer Combination license increase from $343 to $542.
  • Fees for Nonresident Elk Combination license increase from $593 to $812.
  • The revenue generated by the increased license fees is earmarked to fund wildlife habitat conservation and public hunting access programs."

I say let's see what the non-resident numbers reflect at the end of year and publish then so all can see what these high increases really cost the state.


Ca_Vermonster's picture

Well, as we have mentioned

Well, as we have mentioned every time an article comes out about Montana, the biggest factors have got to be the increased fees for non-residents, and the overall economy.  Why spend so much money to drive there and hunt, when you can spend half the amount, and hunt Colorado over the counter. 

Sorry to see a decline in hunter participation anywher, but I can only think that they did it to themselves.  I wonder what the trickle down effect is to the local businesses that relied on out of state hunters?  Probably not good.