Hunter Numbers Down Across West-Central Montana
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.