As Montana hunters stew over unfilled 2011 tags and break out the maps for an earlier-than-ever permit application deadline in 2012, here comes a new point to ponder: Big Sky Country's trophy white-tailed deer population lags behind that of Massachusetts.
Boone and Crockett Club trophy scorers report record book-quality whitetails nationwide are up more than 400 percent over the past 30 years. In the past five years, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Missouri hunters all turned in more than 200 big bucks with antlers earning the coveted score of 160 or more on the club's rubric.
Compared with those top five, Montana hunters turned in five Boone and Crockett-quality racks between 2005 and 2010. That put Montana in a three-way tie for 37th place, with Alabama and North Carolina - and just ahead of Connecticut and New Hampshire, with four apiece.
Montanans put 17 trophies in the book between 1980 and 1985, earning the state 13th place nationally.
"The biggest thing I see in the numbers is that a lot of these states were not producing whitetails to their full potential," said Justin Spring, a Boone and Crockett Club scoring analyst in Missoula. "Montana was at potential when these other states weren't."
Lots of ways exist to boost whitetail trophy populations, from hunting restrictions to deer semen auctions. Some schemes, however, will get a monster rack of antlers tossed out of competition. Tactics like artificial insemination, high-fence captive breeding and cloning have gained popularity in some parts of the country, but aren't allowed by most traditional fair-chase hunting institutions.
States vary on many other tricks that can improve the appearance of deer antlers. Artificial feeding systems, hormone-laced salt licks, night-vision hunting equipment, party hunting and crossbow use all can improve a hunter's chances of bagging bragging rights. All are illegal in Montana.
"Some states are keyed in on producing more trophies," Spring explained. "Montana is more of an opportunity state, where there's game available for everybody. Utah is more of a trophy state. There's advantages to both."
And drawbacks. For example, many states allow some kind of supplemental feeding of big game. But a growing body of research indicates artificial feeding of wildlife often opens the door for disease.
"A lot of recent science in Yellowstone (National Park) and Jackson Hole shows where they've been feeding elk to keep them off ranchland, the incidence of disease is way higher," said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks science program supervisor Alan Wood. "It's a double-edged sword. Even though our herds are pretty much down statewide, we really discourage any sort of feeding. It tends to concentrate animals, and then you get the risk of disease. And particularly now with chronic wasting disease, when it comes in and gets spread, it's here forever."
Chronic wasting disease in wildlife is similar to mad cow disease in cattle: It kills the animal and can potentially pass on a fatal infection to humans. Montana is one of the few major big-game states that doesn't have a CWD problem.
Trophy hunting itself is also a mixed bag. For many "meat hunters," the pursuit of a big set of antlers smacks more of vanity than validity. You can't eat an antler.
Trophy hunters respond that the biggest racks tend to rest on the heads of deer that have passed their prime breeding years, so the impact on the overall population is minimal. Furthermore, those racks attract the top-dollar hunters whose adventures support hundreds of jobs for outfitters, gear makers, restaurants, hotels and related businesses.
James Brion of Corvallis is part-owner of Magnum Hunt Club, which helps hunters book adventures worldwide. He also runs a white-tailed deer hunting camp in Nebraska, which has Montana's old rank of 13th place in the most current Boone and Crockett trophy counts.
In Brion's opinion, the best thing for antler growth is rain. Lots of rain means lots of forage and good wildlife conditions. He thinks second-best is prohibiting hunters from taking 1- and 2-year-old bucks, which increases the odds that a male deer will survive to the trophy-stage 4- and 5-year-old range.
"There has to be areas that are managed for trophies so you get the traveling hunters, and can maximize the tourism dollars from those hunters," Brion said. "But from a long-term standpoint, you have to make sure there's opportunities for everybody to go out and have a place to hunt. If we lose broad-based interest in the sport, none of the rest of this matters."
Many hunters think another factor plays a bigger role: wolves.
"We've got a great management tool in the hunting season," said Alpine Artistry taxidermist Shawn Andres. "We can control for age class and manage specific drainages. If there's a low mature buck count, we can slow that down. They did that with mule deer in the Bitterroot and it worked fine. But until we control the predation problem, that doesn't do anything."
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For Andres and others, the increasing presence of wolves in western Montana hunting territories directly corresponds to the decline in deer harvest.
"We used to mount probably 75 white-tails a year," said Andres, who's been in the taxidermy business since 1978. "They came from Philipsburg to Trout Creek, Hamilton to Kalispell. Last year, we got eight or nine. And probably the biggest concern and biggest factor is predation."
Montana opened a wolf hunting season last year after Congress approved a measure removing wolves from Endangered Species Act protection. As of Friday, hunters had killed 145 of the 220-animal quota, including 41 in the area Andres mentioned.
Across the border in Idaho, where there is no quota, rifle hunters have taken 212 wolves and trappers have caught another 63. That includes 108 wolves in the three hunting districts along the border with Montana between Canada and Lost Trail Pass.
"It's never all anything, but there's no question wolves are a big part of it - wolves eat deer," FWP Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson said. But so do mountain lions, black bears and people. And all three of those face new rules this year that might help white-tails.
That includes a proposal before the FWP Commission to add an open season for lions after the special-permit season ends in February, to ensure area kill quotas are met. Another rule change would extend the spring black bear season. And the trend of reducing antlerless deer opportunities for two-footed hunters will continue, Thompson said.
So it could be a long time before hunters see a return of the white-tail glory days of the late 1970s and early '80s, when state populations hit their high. But the game isn't over.
"This year through the Bonner check station, we saw some big, heavy buck racks come through," Thompson said. "The harvest in 2010 was better than 2009. 2011 looks somewhat down again, but they're showing signs of bouncing back."
In western Montana, anyway. In the eastern, drier half of the state, an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease has hammered white-tail deer populations. The gnat-born infection doesn't threaten humans, but it took a lot of the opportunity out of hunting north and east of Billings.
The bad economy may have also skewed hunting statistics, said Spring, at Boone and Crockett. It's hard to afford an out-of-state outfitter or a new wall mount when jobs are scarce and raises are nonexistent.
Montana has explored many population management tactics and adopted a few that work here, Thompson said. In the 1990s, FWP considered limiting mule deer hunters to racks with three points or more. The idea was to preserve more of the yearlings and fork-horns that would grow up and sprout bigger racks.
"The allure of the point restriction was it doesn't limit the number of hunters," Thompson said. "But the assumption it grows big bucks isn't what happens. If you force all the hunting pressure on the bucks that have three or four points or more, you're truncating the population at an age structure."
On the other hand, setting up trophy hunting districts with tiny permit quotas has proved effective here. As Thompson put it, "It's darn hard to draw a tag, but when you do, you've got something to hunt for."
This year, Montana hunters will have fewer months to ponder their choice of hunting area. That's because FWP moved the deadline for special permit applications from the traditional June 1 to March 15 this year.
Whether any of that will produce an uptick in trophy entries, and whether that matters at all to Montana hunters, won't be known for years. Iowa may have logged 224 Boone and Crockett record-holders in the past five years, but it also correlates deer opportunities with its corn harvest and packs seven to nine hunters per square mile.
How does that compete with the huge blocks of public land that have earned Montana the nickname "American Serengeti?"
"All in all, Montana does a pretty darn good job of regulation setting," Spring said. "This is still by far one of the top states to be a resident hunter, or a nonresident and come to hunt."