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Rece Sandau, 11, and sister Corbyn, 13, watch Gage Mazet tag their whitetail bucks during opening weekend of deer and elk season Sunday at the Bonner Check Station.

KIRA VERCRUYSSEN, Missoulian

Warm weather kept elk harvest below average at the midpoint of the 2016 big game season throughout western Montana.

But deer hunters did well in both west-central and northwest parts of the state as the fall mating season began to make bucks reckless, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks surveys.

“The deer rut is definitely picking up and we’re seeing some bigger bucks come through,” said FWP’s Scott Eggeman, who operates the Bonner Check Station. “We’ll need some weather to push elk around, and it looks like we might get it later this week.”

While National Weather Service forecasts called for snow across much of the area on Wednesday, it won’t come close to the winter conditions of the past three years. Snow gauges in the Blackfoot River drainage had between six and 14 inches by this time in 2012, ’13 and ’14.

That’s held the elk carcass count at check stations across FWP Region 2 to 170, which is 32 percent less than last year. Darby and Anaconda hunters were particularly skunked, coming in 39 and 47 percent below last year’s tally, respectively.

On the other hand, whitetail deer hunters reported 255 kills at the Bonner check station alone, more than any of the previous four years at this point in the season. They also brought in 58 mule deer; another peak for the five-year span.

That’s even more significant because hunter numbers were down considerably. The 7,879 counted so far through all three Region 2 check stations is about 12 percent below the five-year average. The peak was 10,259 in 2013.

That’s a little less than the number of hunters who’ve checked through Region 1’s stations in the northwest part of the state so far. That area has maintained an 8.7 percent success rate, with 497 whitetail bucks, 113 mule deer and 60 elk recorded.

“The rut has started,” Region 1 Supervisor Neil Anderson said this week. “Hunters reported seeing bucks chasing does, and as a result we did see some mature bucks come through the check stations. With the rut in full swing and cold weather, and possibly snow, coming this week, the upcoming weekend should be a good one.”

The statewide wolf hunt has brought in 81 wolves so far, compared to 71 at this point last year. Region 1 hunters recorded 26 wolf kills to date, while Region 2 has reported just one.

Game wardens continue to be on the watch for poachers. On Saturday, hunters in the Skalkaho area found a large mule deer buck with head and antlers removed and most of the meat wasted. It was discovered a short distance from the turnoff to Dam Creek Lake on Forest Service Road 1352. Anyone with information about the shooting is encouraged to call 1-800-TIP-MONT (1-800-847-6668). Callers can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to a conviction.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.