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Hunting season underway

Megan O’Reilly, left, a wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, measures the horns of a bull elk as Chester Not Afraid takes notes and hunter Adam Stahl watches on Oct. 27 in Billings.

Hunters in west central and northwestern Montana are doing relatively well so far this big game season compared to last year, according to numbers from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game check stations.

In Region 2, which includes check stations in Darby, Bonner and Anaconda, hunters brought in 146 elk compared to 106 last year, according to Region 2 spokesperson Vivaca Crowser.

She noted that the Darby station had the biggest bump in elk harvest, with 106 coming through the station in the first two weeks of the general hunting season. That’s the highest at this time in the season since 2013.

Snotel snow measuring sites show about 16 inches on the ground at the Bitterroot’s Saddle Mountain station; 6 inches at Peterson Meadows in the Upper Clark Fork; and 3 inches at Copper Camp in the Blackfoot.

“Weather is always a big factor in big game harvest, especially early in the season,” Mike Thompson, FWP Region 2 wildlife manager, said in a news release. “And this year the early snow and cold we’ve seen has pushed elk into lower elevation areas, bumping harvest success in some spots.”

Hunter check station figures are a sample of the harvest, so they don’t represent the complete number of animals taken. All hunters are required to stop at the check stations they pass, even if they were unsuccessful.

The number of hunters going through the Darby check station also could be a factor, with the 1,707 hunters breaking the total for previous years by anywhere from 50 to 200. Overall, 4,029 hunters came through the three Region 2 game check stations, with an average of 7.1% of them having game. That’s 800 more hunters that went through the game check stations at this time last year, but about 100 fewer than the previous year.

The 22 successful elk hunters through the Bonner check station were down compared to previous years; by this time last year they harvested 36 elk, and that was even fewer than 46 in 2016.

Hunters brought 113 white-tailed deer through the check stations, which is up from 83 last year but down from 162 taken in 2017 and 152 in 2016.

The 22 mule deer that were harvested is down from 27 last year, but up from 21 in 2017.

Crowser said game wardens are seeking information on two mule deer bucks that were shot and left on private property east of Hamilton near the end of Charley’s Gulch Road. A small portion of meat was taken from one of the bucks, and the rest was left to rot.

Anyone who visited the area during the first days of November is encouraged to call Game Warden Justin Singleterry at 240-0764 to report any observations. Information also can be reported by calling 1-800-TIP-MONT (1-800/847-6668). Callers can remain anonymous, but are eligible for a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to a conviction.

Region 1 in northwestern Montana saw an uptick in hunters and harvested big game animals from the 2018 general season, but overall those numbers are down from five years ago.

So far this year, 4,878 hunters passed through the Region 1 game check stations, down from an average of 5,236 in the past nine years. They’ve harvested 32 elk, which is about normal for the past nine years; 36 mule deer, which is slightly above average; and 219 white-tailed deer, down from the nine-year average of 272.

Dillon Tabish, a spokesperson for the region, said a range of variables from the weather to access and regulations can affect hunter harvest. For example, antlerless permits for white-tailed deer were more limited in two districts than in the past.

“The trend overall is maybe a little down in the cycle, but it could be starting to pick back up. From last year, you can see we’re up,” Tabish said, adding that they also had a few harsh winters that negatively impacted fawn populations. “We’ll review the numbers at the end of the season.”

Special rules also were implemented in the greater Libby area after Chronic Wasting Disease was discovered in white-tailed deer. Montana FWP issued 600 antlerless white-tailed deer licenses in the management zone, and all deer, elk, and moose taken within the boundaries are required to be checked and sampled within three days of harvest.

A special CWD sampling station is open from 11 a.m. to 1 ½ hours after sunset at the Montana Department of Transportation’s shop on Highway 2. Tabish said that so far, operations are running smoothly.

“I’ve heard nothing but good reports on the sampling,” Tabish said. “It’s been busy, but to the best of my knowledge we haven’t written any tickets for people getting busted taking deer out of the district without getting tested.”

For more information about CWD, visit fwp.mt.gov/cwd.

The general big game hunting season ends Dec. 1.

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