Big Bull elk Bugling in the Rut

Bull elk

With two weeks left in Montana’s big game general season, hunters in both northwest and north-central Montana are harvesting slightly more deer and elk than last year.

During the past four weekends, nearly 9,200 hunters passed through the five game check stations in Region 1, and 7,234 were noted at the three stations in Region 2, which includes Missoula and the Bitterroot.

The Darby check station continues to dominate the elk and mule deer harvest, with hunters bringing 135 elk and 30 mule deer through the station. That’s more mule deer than in the past five years for that area, up from 23 mulies last year.

The Bonner check station continues to dominate the white-tailed deer harvest, with 229 being harvested by hunters. Only 28 white-tailed deer were brought through the Anaconda check station, and 52 in Darby.

Yet the total number of hunters passing through the Bonner station is the lowest it’s been in five years — 3,555 compared to 4,407 in 2015 — and it also saw the fewest total number of harvested deer, elk, black bear and wolves, with 288 total animals this year compared to 329 in 2015. In particular, elk numbers are about half of last year’s harvest at this point, with 61 taken in 2018 compared to 33 so far in 2019.

Vivaca Crowser, a spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Region 2, said a couple of factors may be coming into play with the elk. Spring surveys showed fewer elk numbers in some places in the Blackfoot drainage than in years past. The agency also cut about 100 cow licenses for 2018 and 2019, which means fewer people hunting.

And finally, the season started later than usual because opening day always is the last Saturday in October. That’s toward the end of the rutting season for bull elk, and not having that also may be a factor, Crowser said.

“It might be those little things that added up and had a bit of an effect,” Crowser said. “It’s too early to really analyze that and we’re not sure if the lower-than-normal elk harvest (coming through the Bonner check station) is really indicative of anything major.”

While the Region 2 totals are up slightly from last year, the harvest and hunter participation are in line with the five-year average for the region, Crowser added. Hunter success remains fairly high for the region, with 8% of hunters bringing game through the three check stations in Region 2.

“Elk harvest started off quite a bit stronger than usual, due largely to early season snow and cold, but now totals are much closer to typical in (the) Bitterroot and still lagging behind last season and the five-year average in the Blackfoot,” Crowser noted in a news release.

She adds that check stations only sample a small portion of hunter participation and harvests, but are important to monitor trends and recording information on wildlife age, health and other observations from the field.

In Region 1 in northwestern Montana, the overall hunter success rate is 8.1%, which is up from 6% a year ago.

Dillon Tabish, the Region 1 spokesperson, said that white-tailed deer hunters are doing well this year, bringing 620 deer through the five check stations, which is 212 more than a year ago. Of those white-tailed deer, 479 were bucks.

The Highway 2 check station saw the most white-tailed action with 250 being recorded. Of those, 202 were bucks. The Olney check station also saw hunter successfully harvest 169 white-tailed deer, with 127 of those being bucks.

The total number of hunters with elk at all five check stations is 46, which is on par with last year. Mule deer harvests are up from last year, with 81 coming through the check station compared to 64 last year.

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