2002 Big Game Hunting Season Is History

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The 2002 big game hunting season, which ended one half hour after sunset on Dec. 1, lingers on in the form of photos for the album, meat in the freezer and stories to brighten holiday parties.

The most accurate indicator of the 2002 harvest, the annual harvest phone survey, will be conducted this winter. In the meantime, here is a quick summary of what Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks personnel observed in the field.

FWP Region 1, Kalispell and the surrounding area:

The total number of whitetail bucks checked, 995, for the five-week season was similar to last year's total of 1,035. Good numbers of three and four year-old bucks were checked at all seven northwest Montana check stations. This reflects good over-winter survival of deer during the past four years. Recruitment of white-tailed deer has been strong, setting the stage for a department recommendation to return to the standard two-week either sex whitetail season next year. The last three weeks would remain antlered buck only.

According to FWP Wildlife Manager Jim Williams, the number of elk checked was up about 50 percent over last year. Most of the elk checked were brow-tined bulls. Several youngsters bagged antlerless elk under the youth elk hunting opportunity. For most, it was their first elk.

The number of mule deer bucks checked was similar to last year.

FWP Region 2, Missoula and the surrounding area:

Harvest success for the three check stations in FWP Region 2 was down slightly from last year, but hunter numbers were up. The ideal weather conditions, with snow and cold, needed to improve this year's harvest over last year's, never materialized. Mild weather during the general big game season has been the case since 1998. Numerous mature bucks, both whitetails and mule deer, were checked again this year.

FWP Region 3, Bozeman and the surrounding area:

Final results at six FWP Region 3 check stations are remarkably similar to those in 2001. For example, total number of hunters in 2002 was 8,321 compared to 8,239 in 2001. This year, a total of 174 bull elk were taken, compared to 171 in 2001. The number of cow elk taken,136, was one more than the 135 taken in 2001.

Elk checked through the check stations totaled 310. Deer checked through the station totaled 163, up by 27 from 2001.

Some 5,000 special permit holders who drew permits in the August drawing will participate in elk hunts by special permit in the Gallatin, at the Flying "D" Ranch southwest of Bozeman, on the west face of the Madison Range, and at Gardiner.

FWP Region 4, Great Falls and the surrounding area:

Conversations with hunters, wildlife biologists and game wardens indicate that the deer and elk harvests in north central Montana were about average. At the single FWP Region 4 check station in Augusta, the number of deer and elk taken by hunters was up slightly from last year. Cold temperatures and snow the first week of the big game season was followed by windy and warm weather much of the rest of November.

FWP Region 5, Billings and the surrounding area:

Hunting check stations in the eight counties around Billings recorded good hunting success. Laurel, Columbus, Big Timer and Lavina weekend game check stations recorded a total of 6,303 hunters. That is about 800 more than the next highest year's total going back to 1999.

Over 680 white-tailed deer were checked compared to 770 in 2000. A total of 1,570 mule deer were harvested, and 186 elk were taken, higher than any of the past four years. The antelope harvest of 101 is down by 37 from last year's harvest. About 40 percent of all hunters harvested game in 2002.

FWP Region 6, Glasgow and the surrounding area:

Deer hunters in Region 6 found plenty of mule deer across much of northeastern Montana, and buck size was generally good, report biologists. White-tailed deer hunting was more spotty, with good numbers of deer along the lower Missouri River and the Milk River east of Hinsdale, but poor numbers farther west in the region.

Elk hunting in Region 6 was widely successful, from early-fall archers to lucky rifle hunters who drew coveted either-sex tags for the Missouri River Breaks. Mild weather increases access to elk and therefore more elk are taken in eastern Montana, the opposite from Montana's mountainous habitat where mild weather depresses elk hunting success.

FWP Region 7, Miles City and the surrounding area:

Antelope season went well in southeastern Montana. Older antelope bucks were observed coming through the check station more often than usual. They tended to be in poorer condition with horns worn off and broken. The good production and recruitment into antelope populations in southeastern Montana the last several years has resulted in strong age classes of younger bucks. It appears these younger bucks are out competing the "old boys," resulting in the poor appearance and condition of older buck antelope.

Overall numbers of deer hunters appeared to be down. The relative number of four-point or better bucks seen at check stations appeared to be higher than usual. Low over-winter mortality and the resulting population growth have played a role in the harvest.