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. 

While hunters across Montana are slightly more successful bringing home their deer and elk this year than they were in 2018, individual results from check stations in north-central and northwestern portions tell a more layered story.

The 2,352 hunters who came through the Darby game check station as of Sunday this year showed off 121 elk, 18 mule deer, 29 white-tailed deer, a black bear, a moose and a sheep. That’s a success rate of 7.3%, which is better than the past four years.

Vivaca Crowser, a spokesperson for Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Region 2, said that the earlier than normal snow and cold contributed to higher hunter success in some places. About 14 inches of snow was reported last week at the Saddle Mountain Snotel site in the Bitterroot Mountains, resulting in the highest elk harvest at this time in the season in the past five years.

“Usually, (hunters) wait until later in the season and even then don’t see the snow and cold we’re having this year, which is moving the elk down from the higher elevations,” Crowser said on Wednesday. “They’re moving into areas where hunters are and can find them. Higher up there’s tracking snow, so that really helps too.”

That’s not the case in Bonner or Anaconda, where the Snotel sites are measuring between 2 inches and 5 inches. Reported elk harvests are down slightly at those two stations from last year.

Overall in Region 2, the white-tailed and mule deer harvests are up slightly from the last year.

Check stations only sample a small portion of hunters in Montana, but are key for monitoring trends and animal information include wildlife age, health and other field observations. Crowser said they closed the Bonner and Anaconda check stations earlier than normal on Sunday due to the gusty winds and blowing snow, and that could have resulted in some lower numbers.

“We probably didn’t miss a lot of hunters, but it was more than just a couple because the last hour or two is when you get people coming out of the woods,” Crowser said. “But I don’t think it was enough to make a difference."

Dillon Tabish, a spokesperson for Region 1 in northwestern Montana, reports this week that the onset of rutting activity for white-tailed deer is helping hunters, particularly those passing through the Olney, Thompson Falls and Canoe Gulch game check stations.

The Olney check station saw 113 white-tailed deer this year, up from 83 in 2018. Thompson Falls reported 32 this year, compared to 21 last year. And Canoe Gulch check station had 37 white-tailed deer, compared to 15 at this point in the season.

White-tailed harvests were down slightly at the Swan and Highway 2 check stations, but the number of bucks reported being taken increased at all five Region 1 stations. 

Tabish said that due to the calendar this year, the hunting season runs through Dec. 1, which gives hunters about an extra week of getting out during the rut.

“Bucks that are rutting are a little more careless than they typically are,” Tabish said. “When they’re not rutting, they’re pretty savvy, like not moving around during the day. But when the rutting season arrives, their No. 1 focus is finding a doe.”

FWP Regional Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson added that hunter harvest is expected to keep improving with the onset of peak mating activity among deer.

Overall, the white-tailed buck harvest is up fairly significantly with 171 being harvested by this time last year and 250 taken so far in 2019. Overall, 363 white-tailed deer have been harvested in Region 1 this year, compared to 320 last year.

“Bucks are a good indicator of the population,” Tabish said. “We had some rough winters for the last three years … that typically leads to deer harvest going down. We are hoping maybe we’re coming out of that. But it may be too early to tell.”

While Region 2 is known for its elk, Tabish noted that Region 1 is all about white-tailed deer. Still, elk harvests are up from last year, with a total of 40 coming through the five game check stations.

Tabish said weather also is a factor in Region 1.

“It was a pretty cool opener; not like previous years when it was 75 degrees on opening day and it was so hot the animals didn’t like to move around,” Tabish said. “The weather and the way the calendar year worked really helped.”

The general big game season runs through Dec. 1. FWP officials noted that some regulation changes have been made since last year, so hunters should review the specific rules for each hunting district.

In particular, hunters in the Libby chronic wasting disease management zone, which includes portions of HDs 100, 103 and 104, need to have all deer, elk and moose checked and sampled within three days of harvest.

During the season, the sampling station at the Montana Department of Transportation shop on U.S. Highway 2, mile marker 35, will be open every day from 11 a.m. to 1½ hours after sunset. Hunters are only required to stop at the station if they harvested an animal. They also need to follow rules about handling carcasses in the management zone.

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

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