University of Montana wildlife biology student Ethan Antle checks in with hunters coming through the check station last month without game animals. Several wildlife biology students volunteered to spend the day at the FWP game check station, learning about the process of keeping data on hunted game. 

Hunters at the Darby check station reported the most elk harvested on opening weekend since 2011 — 73 this year, according to a news release Monday from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

That compared to 50 last year, 70 in 2017 and 57 in 2016, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The same check station also logged 1,012 hunters, the most since 2015.

"The weather has probably been the biggest difference," said agency spokesperson Vivaca Crowser. FWP noted the snow depth at 17 inches at the Darby station compared to 4 inches the previous year and 12 inches in 2017.

Otherwise, the 2019 big game hunting season had an average opening weekend in west central Montana, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In the press release, the agency announced its three long-standing check stations in Region 2 had logged 2,325 hunters and 179 harvested animals, in line with first-weekend averages in recent years. A newer fourth check station at Fish Creek logged 174 hunters and seven animals.

Some stations stood out on specific metrics. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s snowfall-monitoring site on Saddle Mountain near the Darby station showed 3.4 inches of snow-water equivalent Sunday evening — nearly three times the normal amount this time of year. Crowser said agency biologists believe the winter weather in the Bitterroot had "prompted more elk to move down where hunters are, into the valley bottoms" — and that hunters knew to take advantage of this movement.

East of Missoula, the Bonner check station recorded its lowest elk harvest — 16 — since 2014, but FWP noted that this was still in line with typical opening-weekend numbers.

Julie Golla, a biologist in the Upper Clark Fork, remarked in the press release that well over half of the elk and deer harvest came through the Anaconda station on Sunday.

"Saturday was a cold, snowy and windy day — a tough day to be out there," Golla said in the press release. “Sunday was cold, but clear and a more enjoyable day for hunting.” Across Region 2, hunters faced temperatures ranging between the teens and the low 50s.

In Region 1, which covers northwest Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks reported 2,700 hunter check-ins and 240 harvested animals at five check stations. These numbers were slightly lower than average.

In the news release, FWP noted hunter check stations "sample a small portion of the effort and harvests across the region, but they do record important trends and biological information."

"Check stations are the key way for us to see how harvest is shaping up compared to historical averages, and they are really important for gathering information on wildlife age, health and other observations from the field," said Mike Thompson, FWP Region 2 wildlife manager, in a statement.

For more information about hunting seasons and harvests, visit http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/.

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