After several years of sacrifice to support struggling big game populations in western Montana, hunters this fall may see some payoff.
“From the results of our spring elk survey, the things we’re trying to accomplish with elk in the east and west forks of the Bitterroot looks like they’re working,” said Mike Thompson, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 wildlife manager. “And from some hunter reports this fall, it looks like they’re seeing more bulls than they had before, and larger cow groups. They’re seeing good signs that correspond with the improved trend count we saw this spring. We were really worried a year or three ago. Now there are signs we’re going to win this one. We’re very hopeful.”
White-tailed deer numbers also appear on the rebound in the Blackfoot and Seeley-Swan drainages after several years of depression.
But rising trend lines don’t mean a return to game abundance some hunters remember from a decade ago.
“Things are relatively low in most places west of Missoula,” Thompson said. “That’s a hard hunt out there.”
A possible epizootic hemorraghic disease outbreak south of Frenchtown recently has killed a couple hundred whitetails along the Clark Fork River. If EHD is confirmed, it would mark the first time the disease has appeared in Montana west of the Continental Divide. It’s been a frequent challenge in river systems throughout the eastern part of the state for years.
But as of this week, the die-off area had not expanded significantly beyond Harpers Bridge on the east and Erskine Fishing Access on the west. FWP biologists were checking possible infected deer in the Highway 93 corridor near Lower Miller Creek and Stevensville, but those incidents have not been verified.
To help populations, FWP almost eliminated elk cow and deer doe tags from the market in the past several years. A common either-sex week for white-tailed deer was also removed from the season calendar, further limiting antlerless opportunities. Coupled with increased hunting pressure aimed at predators such as wolves, bears and lions, the restrictions have given the ungulates some recovery space to rebuild, Thompson said.
Another animal that’s had a hard year is the gray wolf. Increasing hunter and trapper success in last year’s wolf hunt, combined with landowner depredation actions, have pushed wolf numbers down in Region 2.
“For the first time in a long time, our minimum known number is down a bit,” said FWP state wildlife manager George Pauley. “In 2012 it was 625, while in 2011 it was 653.”
The minimum known number includes all the wolves FWP staff see, hear or can reasonably extrapolate from research surveys – it is not expected to be a complete census of the state’s wolf population. Last year, hunters shot 128 wolves while trappers took another 97. Pauley said three-quarters of those wolves were killed by hunters seeking other big game.
But a growing number of hunters have taken on wolves as a primary target. In Region 2, Thompson said that group is gaining experience.
“It’s a tremendous challenge to hunt a wolf,” Thompson said. “It takes a whole lot of time, and you have to learn a lot to hunt them in a fair-chase situation. But there’s a core group of hunters scattered across the region who’ve really taken it on to learn how to hunt wolves, and a number of them have gotten very successful.”
This year marks the first general big game season when hunters can use artificial electronic calls on wolf hunts.
“The most effective tactic is howling, because wolves will often answer a howl, and often come in,” Pauley said. “But I’d still leave the electronic call at home and use my voice. I think it’s more effective.”
Increased pressure on black bears and mountain lions also had an affect on big game numbers in Region 2. That was especially true in the southern Bitterroot, where a multi-year study of elk survival appears to show bears and lions actually hurt elk populations more than wolves did.
In northwest Montana, elk and deer populations show slight upticks after several years of declines.
“I’m pretty excited about this fall,” Region 1 wildlife biologist John Vore said. “This is a whitetail deer system for the most part – that’s our bread and butter. And we’ve had very good recruitment in the last couple years. There should be a lot of yearling and 2-year-old bucks out there.”
Elk in northwest Montana come in smaller herds than other parts of the state, but this year they’re showing healthy numbers among what’s there. Vore said the calf:cow average ratio was 17:100, down slightly from last year’s 22:100 but continuing an upward trend over the past six years.
“That’s not too bad,” Vore said. “It’s been as low as the single digits.”
Numbers could be below normal in the far northwest and the North Fork of the Flathead River. Mule deer numbers remain low too, compared to a generation ago. However, a recent survey flight over the Fisher River near Thompson Falls revealed a strong population with good fawn recruitment there, Vore said.
On the elk side, calf recruitment in the South Fork of the Flathead River has been gradually increasing for the past five years, while spring surveys in the Lower Clark Fork River hunting districts show stable numbers.
Southwest Montana has avoided the EHD outbreaks that have depressed white-tailed deer numbers in other parts of the state. Most whitetails are found in riverbottoms, which are frequently in private land. Hunters should arrange permission from landowners well in advance.
Mule deer herds have been stable or slightly decreasing from long-term averages in southwestern Montana. Muley bucks are restricted to permit-only status in several popular hunting districts.
The Dillon area has seen the highest elk numbers in FWP Region 3, along with the Pioneer Mountains, Shields Valley and Helena area. However, all those locations may involve earning access to private land. Elk populations in the Elkhorn Mountains appear stable, as do numbers in the Upper Gallatin and Paradise Valley areas. Gravelly Range elk numbers have remained about the same as last year.