Mule Deer Hunting Outlook

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A wet spring and lush forage in many parts of the state through spring and early summer gave mule deer a good start this year before hot, dry weather moved in drying out forage in some parts of the state.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ spring 2003 population surveys showed mule deer numbers at average to above average in most of Montana.

By mid-summer, hot and dry weather in most of the state provided less than optimum conditions and may have increased the likelihood of fall game-damage problems.

“Mule deer fawns, born in June, experience better growth in years marked by good spring and early summer rains,” said Jeff Herbert, FWP Wildlife Division assistant administrator. “Usually, they’ll enter winter in better condition and are more apt to survive.”

“I’d anticipate that in spite of this summer’s hot, dry conditions forage will hold up and fawns will still be going into the winter in fairly good condition, however, a lot depends on what happens weather wise through the remainder of the summer and into fall,” Herbert said.

The number of fawns that survive their first winter is a significant factor in the population trends FWP observes year-to-year.

“Tracking the number of fawns that survive through the winter in relationship to the total number of adults give us important information. Coupled with buck-to-doe ratios collected in early winter, our surveys help us to spot population trends and adjust our hunting regulations accordingly,” Herbert said.

The surveys are conducted across the state on 13 census areas and 67 trend areas. And, while most showed promise in last spring’s surveys, there are some areas of concern.

“In a few areas we’re seeing what may be early indications that mule deer numbers have peaked and started down,” Herbert said.

In the Bridger Mountains, for example, some populations have declined a bit even with relatively favorable conditions. In other areas near Bozeman dry conditions last year combined with heavier, late winter snow reduced fawn survival, in some cases for the second year.

“How these situations play out depends a lot on how dry it is late summer and early fall in these areas and how harsh this coming winter is,” Herbert said.

Here is a regional look at Montana’s mule deer populations:

In FWP Region 1, Kalispell and the surrounding northwestern area mule deer populations are holding steady and there is a satisfactory age structure of bucks. Fawn survival this winter should be helped by the good forage in summer. There are no hunting season changes planned for mule deer in the northwest at this time. Hunters can expect hunting opportunities to be similar to those in 2002.

In FWP Region 2, Missoula and the surrounding area, western Montana’s wet spring and improved quality and quantity of forage gave mule deer a good start though that was followed with dryer, late summer conditions. Hunters can expect hunting opportunities to be similar to those in the past couple of years.

In FWP Region 3, Bozeman and the surrounding area biologists believe mule deer produced a healthy fawn crop as a result of a favorable growing season through mid-July. The onset of hot, dry weather during mid to late summer could reduce forage quality and impact the physical condition of deer entering winter. This fall, hunters can expect to find average to slightly above average numbers of mule deer in most habitats. Buck to doe ratios and buck hunting opportunities should show noticeable signs of improvement in most areas, reflecting the above average survival of fawns in recent years.

In FWP Region 4, Great Falls and the surrounding area, a favorable spring this year should help increase winter fawn survival and maintain mule deer populations depending on how late season forage holds up. The number of adult females remains strong and the prognosis is good for maintaining populations previously limited by drought. Hunters can expect the coming hunting season to be similar to the 2000 and 2001 seasons, with no substantive changes in the hunting regulations. The liberal number of antlerless “B” licenses in many hunting districts, reflecting abundant antlerless deer, will continue this season.

In FWP Region 5, Billings and the surrounding area, both prairie and mountain mule deer populations show signs of stress from consecutive years of drought followed by this past harsh winter and now a dry summer. Biologists expect mule deer populations to remain stable. Biologists are recommending a hunting package that supplies an average number of hunting opportunities in the plains habitats. In the mountains, a more restrictive hunting package, with less than average hunting opportunities, will help stabilize these populations.

In FWP Region 6, Glasgow and the surrounding area, overall mule deer numbers are 23 percent above the long-term average and 16 percent above the numbers observed in 2002. Forage has been good throughout the region since the spring of 2002, with obvious positive impacts on mule deer. The mule deer picture is bright.

In FWP Region 7, Miles City and the surrounding area precipitation in April, May and June dramatically improved wildlife forage. The outlook for mule deer populations in FWP Region 7 is good to excellent. Hunters can expect to see good hunting opportunities for both older aged and younger bucks, while doe hunting opportunities will vary by area depending on late summer and fall moisture.