2013 hunting preview: Game populations on the rise in western Montana

Hunters may see more deer, elk this fall
2013-09-26T07:00:00Z 2014-10-03T14:29:21Z 2013 hunting preview: Game populations on the rise in western Montana

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.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(28) Comments

  1. oldcowgirl
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    oldcowgirl - September 30, 2013 10:55 am
    Great post Misingleshot, Spot On........
  2. MIsingleShot
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    MIsingleShot - September 30, 2013 4:19 am
    Thank goodness Montana spoke quite clearly last year with HB73 ..... (which pass UNANOMOUSLY) That bill was an 'in your face' to people like Chewy that think what is created in Yellowstone is Natural. MAN has been part of the eco-systems of North America for at least 12000 years..... they were not eating tofu and wearing polyester bonnets. The were killing animals for food and clothing......all those year. Nature is the highest of highs and lowest of lows.....MAN is the balance!
  3. MIsingleShot
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    MIsingleShot - September 30, 2013 4:11 am
    Gadfly, the only man that is a "disease" are the ones that pimp wolves in order to get "donate now" buttons pressed and EAJA dollars in their pockets. The Bigots know nothing of balance and create unnatural predator pits!
  4. MIsingleShot
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    MIsingleShot - September 30, 2013 4:07 am
    nomolobol Good post.... I do thank the trappers for their part in keeping predator to a minimum.
  5. MIsingleShot
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    MIsingleShot - September 30, 2013 4:03 am
    Excellent letter Kuato..... Keep up the good fight.
  6. MIsingleShot
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    MIsingleShot - September 30, 2013 3:59 am
    2buck2, what a crock! There were 1200 moose on the Northern Range of Yellowstone before wolves. The last published count (that I am aware of ) was the winter of 2009/2010 Where the population was headed south of 100! Every Moose hunting unit around the park is down to minimum tags IF ANY! Wolves are wildlife leeches and the people that pimp them are worse!
  7. 2buck2
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    2buck2 - September 28, 2013 5:54 pm
    Yeah, that is the other lame argument by hunters "well of course non-hunters can use public land" but in the next breath "they just have to be careful of our traps and guns and if they have any opinions on things they best keep it to themselves" Yup, big sharers you are.
  8. Roger
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    Roger - September 28, 2013 12:46 pm
    Hunting is just another use for public land - non-hunters can also use that land - so quit whining.

    Also, great letter Kuato.
  9. Roger
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    Roger - September 28, 2013 12:38 pm
    Wolves may not totally eliminate prey species, but they can severely reduce their numbers. Consider what they did to the Yellowstone elk population, which went from around 20,000 when wolves were introduced, to less than 4000. Other areas also have seen elk and/or deer severely reduced by wolves and other predators.
  10. 2buck2
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    2buck2 - September 28, 2013 9:25 am
    And I have found moose in Yellowstone. But of course I must be lying or an out-of-stater. Have you even spent time with a biologist in that area or did you just decide you were an expert on your own?
  11. 2buck2
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    2buck2 - September 28, 2013 9:22 am
    The hunters in this state certainly like to pretend that they are not only the sole reason there is wildlife but that they are the only ones who know anything about animals here. Everyone else is ignorant, whether they live here or not. Who cares what they really know when YOU bought a license. That means YOU understand it better. I am a Native Montanan and I should have just as much right to wildlife in my own state as the next person but it as been made clear that I don't. MY heritage means nothing because I didn't pay $20 for an elk license which apparently makes me omnipotent. Sportsmen may pay for management in this state, but you do it on public lands which is supposedly owned by the PUBLIC. Not just your group. Maybe we should just nix the public lands in Montana and be done with it. Privatize the wildlife and then to each his own.
  12. wolvesrock
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    wolvesrock - September 27, 2013 4:12 pm
    It's scary that these people are in charge of managing wildlife. Predator and prey were doing just fine before we came along. There is no such thing as too many predators. It doesn't happen in nature. The only thing that has messed up the balance with the prey population is the explosive human population. Nature has its cycles and sometimes prey numbers go down due to disease, drought, etc. but the predators have always kept a balance in the prey population. Scary who is in charge of things.
  13. AAO22
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    AAO22 - September 26, 2013 11:18 pm
    @ Nomolobo - Very well said and so true! The public needs to be aware of the repercussions of I-167. The future of Montana's wildlife, wildlife management and conservation. hunting heritages and rights is a stake. Sportsmen & women, livestock producers and the agricultural community all need to band together and fight for our rights and defeat the eco-terrorists.
  14. AAO22
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    AAO22 - September 26, 2013 11:10 pm
    @ Kuato - Virtual high 5 !!! Couldn't have said it better. Thank you!!
  15. Kuato
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    Kuato - September 26, 2013 4:41 pm
    This statement is complete and utter nonsense designed for those conformist with a weak mind who want and need this extraterrestrial collectivist hive mind to tell them how to think ! It is like saying "throwing the baby out with the bath water is a good thing because now the tub is cleaner". Give Yellowstone another five to ten years and their won't be any ungulates left "Thicker foliage and stability to the banks" what a truck load of bull manure! Flawed logic at best, in this type of thinking by freeloading wolf lovers who take food off the tables of those who support the modern day conservation system . So they can feed it to the wolves and ride the system with government handouts. The west did just fine without the wolf , and will again.The Globalist are like cockroaches who brought wolves here, fund these pro wolf groups, to destroy the rural economy and to divide the people and conquer. If anyone is "narrow minded "it is you pal, and we all know that these bought and paid for, pro agenda 21 ,pro wolf ,anti gun, anti hunter types like to use all kinds of propaganda and disinformation to support the destruction of our wildlife. .. Nothing more then fresh shinny green "bull manure" ! So go ahead pal and extend your pinky fingers and pretend you are better educated and smarter then the people who live here, but you are really nothing more then a pseudo-intellect. The real question we should all be asking is why is the government trying to destroy our states wildlife and economy by shoving wolves down our throats and funding anti hunting groups with our tax dollars, who pretend to be conservation minded,but who's real goal is to destroy gun rights. ranching and our hunting heritage by over running our states with game and livestock killing predators ? Anybody who thinks just because we have limited management of wolves that things are going to change better think again. Too little to late. I will start to believe when I see the harvest stop dropping like a rock ,and start going up. until then sportsmen have a lot of work to do.
  16. speedbow20
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    speedbow20 - September 26, 2013 4:25 pm
    Quack Shack! I love it, I`m gonna steal that!
  17. gadflyohsofly
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    gadflyohsofly - September 26, 2013 3:12 pm
    Shiras moose will be on the endangered species list soon. Go to Yellowstone and try to find one.
    Examine population data in the Big Hole.
    If current trends continue there will be NO moose in twenty years.
  18. leftwingistherightwing
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    leftwingistherightwing - September 26, 2013 1:43 pm
    Yellowstone Park is a wonderful example of the positive effects of wolf population. The river banks throughout the area have been able to regrow with much thicker foliage, providing stability to the banks. Of course the narrow minded people who are scared of the big bad wolf wouldn't do the research to know that. All they care about is killing an elk from the road in the exact same place every year. Even wolves are smart enough to know that you won't find an elk in the same place every year.
  19. gadflyohsofly
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    gadflyohsofly - September 26, 2013 1:05 pm
    I would like to also know the hours and miles spent out of the vehicle walking or riding horses all these self professed animal experts who claim that elk populations are just fine, spend.
    I know roger doesn't get far from his quack shack in G falls where he pretends to be a phychoTHErapist or whatever he does.
  20. Roger
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    Roger - September 26, 2013 12:32 pm
    Another absurd Gadfly post - wolves have had a very negative effect on ungulate numbers in some areas. That's what you get from a wolf-worshiper.
  21. speedbow20
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    speedbow20 - September 26, 2013 12:28 pm
    Roger, are you going to go harrass hunters and their kids this rifle season at check stations?
  22. Snowcrest
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    Snowcrest - September 26, 2013 9:51 am
    At the grizzly bear meeting in Twin Bridges earlier this week the chief region 3 wildlife biologist addressed the crowd and stated that region 3 is still experiencing a downward trend in elk and mule deer numbers.
    It's simple math, we now have a wolf hunt and maybe, just maybe we can turn around the downward trend in ungulate numbers in those units which need help by continuing our management of the wolf, lion and other predators which are chiefly responsible for the negative trend.
    It is absolutely evident that the units that are down are units with large wolf populations, and those units that are up in ungulate numbers are generally low in wolf populations, or units that have seen active wolf management.
    You cant argue with the facts,,,unless those facts are getting the way of your beliefs.
  23. Chewy
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    Chewy - September 26, 2013 9:22 am
    Good post Gadfly. The wildlife has done fine for untold millenia, it is human mismanagement which has caused the problems. Anyone who understands the predator-prey relationship knows this. Wolves do not extirpate their prey species, only short-sighted humans do that.
    We've had wolves in the North Fork Flathead since the early eighties, yet we still have healthy ungulate populations there. That is proof that they do not eliminate prey species.
  24. Don't Care
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    Don't Care - September 26, 2013 7:38 am
    I am the apex predator.
  25. gadflyohsofly
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    gadflyohsofly - September 26, 2013 6:59 am
    Gadfly, I know it isn't going to happen but I'll suggest it anyways. It's a big world out there, and although you apparently are becoming rather old and senile you may have a little time left.
    Get on a horse and ride thought the Bob Marshall. Tell us how many elk you see. Stop in an outfitters camp, ask them what it was like 10 years ago.
    Go witness the northern Yellowstone migration, or what's left of it.
    Go to the north fork of the Blackfoot and watch the elk migrate from the Bob onto the Clearwater game range. See if you can even find their trail. Tell me how many elk you saw. Then I'll show you pictures of 600 elk coming across Spread mountain from ten years ago. I could go on and on with places where there are barely any elk left. The skalkoho, Idaho panhandle, the Lolo zone/ Selway etc..
    FWP is not telling the truth.
  26. nomolobo
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    nomolobo - September 26, 2013 6:48 am
    Our ancestors understood the effects of too many predators and dealt with them accordingly. Why don't the radical animal rights/greenie extremists recognize the true facts that predators need to be managed to allow for healthy game populations to exist. We hunters and especially trappers will be even more effective as we gather more methods and means as was implemented in this years hunting regulations for wolves. We hunters also are one of the first groups to sacrifice our traditions and heritage of hunting to sustain the resource as was evident by the management practices in years past due to wolf population abundance. Now we may be starting to see improvement in some areas so that some day we can have our next generation appreciate what we shared in the past. That is if we keep up the necessary predator control actions and sustain public lands trapping. If all livestock producers, sportsmen and rural Montanans defeat the extremists with their wacko wildlife ballot initiative I-167.

  27. Gadfly
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    Gadfly - September 26, 2013 6:17 am
    It is 8th grade math! The game populations are increasing in wolf presence. In fact, game populations have been increasing with wolf numbers really rising over the years, with only a slight dip last year. The reasons for localized game populations fluctuations are movement, which the wolves do cause, forage fluctuations, disease, and hunter pressures. It is superstitious behavior for hunters and FWP to jump to the conclusion that any failure to bag an animal or find it harder to hunt that it is wolves. But this is old folklore among hunters: That the predators have to be marginalized to increase the game populations. Man or weather or habitat loss or disease or forage availability are always first and foremost the factors in game fluctuations, and even a lot of those factors are natural. There are too few wolves in the region to even entertain the idea that they are a factor. Besides, wolves and other apex animals belong in the wilderness and make the game herds healthier. Man is like a disease, with his killing additive, affecting healthy viability of game. It is man that most needs management, which is evident with a little thought as FWP sooner or later regulates hunting in relation to game availability. What FWP and hunters do not understand is ecology and the beneficial effects of predators.
  28. Chris Bosshardt
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    Chris Bosshardt - September 25, 2013 11:21 pm
    we obviously need more wolves in the area.
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