Citing a precipitous and somewhat mysterious drop in mule deer numbers in portions of Montana, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission made numerous changes Thursday that will allow fewer does to be taken by hunters.
The move came on a day when the commission also decided not to extend the wolf hunting season in the southern Bitterroot Valley, where elk populations have plummeted.
The proposal was voted down 5-0. It would have allowed the hunt to continue in the area near the Idaho border until April 1.
FWP commissioners said they were reluctant to approve a piecemeal extension of the hunt instead of taking a statewide approach. They also said they did not want to disturb an ongoing elk study.
Hunters had pushed for the extension, citing the decline in elk numbers. Just six wolves were killed out of the Bitterroot's quota of 18.
The decision left some Bitterroot Valley residents unhappy.
"We are big-time disappointed with the commission's decision," said Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association president Tony Jones. "It was something that we thought was needed and had to happen. ... It doesn't appear that we are going to get any help on our predator problems from the commission or the department."
Said Ravalli County Commissioner Suzy Foss: "There are not a lot of happy campers in the Bitterroot today, especially those ranchers and hunters who have worked so hard to try to have a voice in this. They feel like they are being totally ignored."
Montana's wolf hunt ended on Wednesday. The 166 wolves reported killed equal 75 percent of the state's 220-animal quota.
Populations of deer and antelope are in trouble all across the state, commissioners were told Thursday.
Mule deer, white-tailed deer and antelope populations have decreased dramatically in Montana due to a variety of reasons, including predators, disease and last year's harsh winter. But FWP Commissioner Ron Moody, who represents north-central Montana, said he thinks something else is at play with mule deer and he wants state biologists to look more closely at the situation.
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"Mule deer are displaying not just an anecdotal cyclical response to their immediate environment, but we're also having some kind of systemic problem maintaining mule deer in this state that we don't have a grip on or understand," Moody said. "We have to elevate our scrutiny of what we are doing with mule deer and where we are doing it.
"But this all may not be enough; it may not even be addressing the real problem."
Commissioners Shane Colton and Dan Vermillion said they've also been hearing from hunters about the lack of mule deer in portions of the state.
"There's quite a bit of interest in getting the white-tail harvest up ... but one constant comment in southwest Montana is there are concerns over the mule deer population in some districts and the doe license numbers are inconsistent with where the public, and I, may think are tolerable mule deer harvests," Vermillion said.
Those comments, as well as concerns from FWP biologists, prompted the commission to change license types and lower quotas.
For example, in hunting districts 281, 283 and 285 near Lincoln and Seeley Lake, the commission eliminated antlerless mule deer B licenses. That means that hunters can use their initial license to shoot a buck, but they must leave reproducing females alone.
The commission took similar steps in northwest Montana to protect both mule deer and white-tailed does. Along with the tough winter, the white-tails have contracted the often-deadly epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, which is spread by mites.
In north-central, south-central and northeastern Montana, the commission lowered the quotas for both deer species. Ron Aasheim, FWP communication chief, said they won't have a good feeling for population numbers until after winter counts are made, but lowering the quota range at this point will allow the commission to issue fewer licenses later this year if necessary.
"Deer quotas have a minimum and maximum and so in some places where we're seeing significant declines in deer we're lowering the quotas. So if we want to lower the number of licenses and permits we'll have the authority to do that later," Aasheim said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.