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Kolbe extracts a tooth from a whitetail buck to determine its age as hunter Andrew Lowney of Missoula looks on. Kolbe says the harvest numbers seem to be very low to start the season.

MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Pouring rain on the last day of the 2013 hunting season didn’t keep the determined from filling their freezers this year.

Game tallies across western Montana were roughly equal or slightly better than last year for whitetail deer and elk, according to check station reports from the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

While that doesn’t mean things are getting easier, FWP Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson said it does hint that some management strategies are working.

“With the restrictions we put into place over the last three years, we have a fairly good baseline to predict changes in the future as populations change,” Thompson said Monday. "It’s always nice to get a decent feeling for what restrictions mean with the harvest. Hopefully, we can liberalize regulations soon.”

In particular, FWP has eliminated almost all antlerless licenses – doe deer and cow elk – in western Montana over the past two or three years. Mule deer tags have become harder to get, either by limited drawing opportunities or restrictive single-area-only permits.

FWP biologists combine those hunting controls with surveys by air to count elk herds and on the ground to count deer fawn recruitment to judge how populations fare.

“It feels like the whitetail deer harvest is reduced and stabilized to the point where populations can increase above past levels,” Thompson said. “Mule deer populations, based on the harvest, we still haven’t found bottom yet. But the elk population on public land – we’re giving them a chance to grow. I think we’re doing what we need to be doing.”

Overall, 15,893 hunters passed through Region 2 check stations during the five-week season that ended Sunday. Of those, 7.1 percent were successful, a rate down somewhat from the 7.4 percent five-year average.

“The years where harvest isn’t quite what people had hoped for, helps us have a better harvest next year,” Thompson said. “When we’re looking to conserve population numbers for the future, a light harvest is not a bad thing these days.”

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Elk hunters in the southern Bitterroot Valley did 25 percent better than last year, bringing in 329 animals. That made up the bulk of the Region 2 elk harvest, which totaled 431 at all three area check stations. In 2012, elk hunters brought in 397.

Lack of snow cover for tracking and migration pressure kept elk numbers low in the Blackfoot-Clearwater area northeast of Missoula. The Bonner check station elk tally was 39 percent below last year, with 56 taken. Conditions were even tougher around Anaconda.

“In the Upper Clark Fork, hunters never got the weather needed to achieve significant harvest, or even average harvest,” FWP biologist Ray Vinkey said in an email. “Deer and elk remained widely scattered up to the very end of hunting season, and deer harvest did not even pick up significantly with the rut.”

Hunters around Anaconda and Philipsburg took 46 elk, compared with 15 each whitetails and mule deer.

Mule deer harvest was low throughout the region compared to the five-year average. The 85 muleys checked at the Darby station was up 12 percent from last year, while the Bonner check station was 14 percent below 2012 with 51 brought in.

Whitetail kills totaled 534 for all of Region 2, and were best in the area north of Bonner (327). That was almost identical to last year (536) and 3 percent below the five-year average. Area biologist Jay Kolbe said he saw a lot of younger age-class bucks coming past the station.

A check station at Fish Creek, which has been in operation two years, counted 1,626 hunters, 68 whitetails, 20 mule deer and four elk over the five-week season. Those totals were almost identical to last year.

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Whitetail numbers were up, but elk were down in northwest Montana’s Region 1. Overall, 7.1 percent of the 18,262 hunters passing through the area’s six check stations reported success.

“The increase in bucks harvested is a good indication that the whitetail population continues to recover from a recent low in 2009,” Region 1 FWP biologist John Vore said in an email. “As expected, based on our spring surveys, many of the bucks harvested were yearlings and 2-year-olds.”

Hunters stopping by the Olney and Thompson Falls monitors reported the best takes, with one in 10 bringing game at Olney and 8.6 percent successful at Thompson Falls. The North Fork and Canoe Gulch stations fared worst, with less than one in 20 hunters coming in with meat.

While license opportunities for deer and elk have been reduced, FWP has also been liberalizing seasons on wolves, bear and mountain lions. Region 2 is in the second year of a three-year effort to reduce the area lion population by 30 percent through increases in permit availability. Bear seasons in the lower Clark Fork basin could be extended in future years. And statewide, wolf hunting is no longer on an annual quota limit.

Region 2 hunters took 25 wolves during the big-game season, while in Region 1, the count was up to 34. Across the state, wolf hunters had brought in 94, slightly ahead of this time last year. The wolf rifle season extends through March 15, while wolf trapping begins Dec. 15.

No other big-game hunting seasons will be extended beyond Sunday’s close except pre-arranged game damage hunts. People interested in those opportunities needed to be on the game-damage roster in July.

An outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease killed more than 100 whitetail deer along the Clark Fork River south of Frenchtown this fall. It was the first time the gnat-borne disease was reported west of Montana’s Continental Divide, although it’s been a frequent plague east of the Rocky Mountains. Thompson said the Frenchtown outbreak hasn’t offered many clues about its appearance here.

“We haven’t had any cause-and-effect work done yet,” Thompson said. “We know the droughty conditions were good for it, but we don’t know if we can explain that from long-term weather patterns in the Missoula Valley. We don’t know how the bug got over the hill.”

Reflections on the 2013 season could affect future years’ hunting and fishing licenses when the state Fish and Wildlife Commission meets on Dec. 11. Commissioners are halfway through their biennial updating of the license system. The last time resident hunting and fishing fees were changed was in 2005.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.