KALISPELL — Northwestern Montanans’ favorite game animal appears to have dodged nature's bullet last winter.
When the snow began to pile up last year, biologists who track whitetail deer populations in this part of the state worried they might see a repeat of the disastrous winters of 1996 and 1997 when populations plummeted from record highs.
Since then, whitetail deer numbers have rebounded and last year’s numbers were beginning to approach those high levels recorded in early 1990s.
But with heavy snows and frigid temperatures, the stage appeared to be set for another deadly winter for deer.
Regional Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson said while it’s a mixed bag as far as fawn survival, overall whitetail deer populations appear to have weathered the storm in many areas of northwestern Montana.
There probably were a couple of saving factors for the deer.
Good amounts of moisture in the summer and fall provided for ample forage for the deer going into the winter months, and the animals were able to pack on some fat to help them get through the winter.
“For the most part, they were in pretty good shape at the start of winter,” Anderson said.
While there was a good deal of snow last winter, it came relatively late in the season. Anderson said it really didn’t start piling up until December.
The annual spring surveys found that adults fared relatively well, but fawn survival was more spotty.
The North Fork of the Flathead’s deep snow and severely cold temperatures proved to be the hardest on fawns in the region. Hunting districts in the Thompson Falls and Eureka areas also didn’t fare quite as well in terms of fawn survival as other areas.
Anderson said the state backed off the number of doe tags it offered this year in those areas in an effort to help alleviate losses to this year’s fawn crop.
“If you want to shoot a doe, there are a lots of other places that should still be good,” Anderson said.
For instance, fawn survival was better in the Libby and Kalispell areas despite deep snow during the winter months.
Hunters in northwestern Montana can hunt does during the first week of the season, which begins Saturday, Oct. 21. They also can hunt does on the last week of the season on private land other than industrial timberlands.
In 2016, hunters harvested an estimated 9,312 whitetail bucks, which was the highest number since the early 1990s. The state also increased opportunities last year to harvest does in an effort to slow population growth, reduce some of the pressure on bucks and decrease the potential for a major die-off like the ones that occurred in the mid-1990s.
If this winter isn’t extreme, Anderson expects whitetail deer numbers will rebound quickly.
Mule deer are a different story.
While there aren’t nearly as many mule deer in northwestern Montana as other parts of the state, their numbers appear to be holding relatively steady in some areas and declining in others.
“We are a little concerned in general with mule deer populations,” Anderson said.
A mule deer research project is set to begin in the Fisher River area and Whitefish Range this winter. Mule deer does will be captured and fitted with GPS collars. The study will evaluate mule deer habitat use, home range, survival and recruitment.
While northwestern Montana doesn’t offer the kind of elk habitat found farther south, Anderson said there are some pockets of elk scattered about the region.
Biologists did document a dip in calf survival in the Eureka and Thompson Falls areas. The numbers of cow permits were reduced as a result.
“Hopefully that will only be for a year and that’s just a blip,” Anderson said.