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Hunters pack out two elk quarters

Hunters pack out two elk quarters during Montana's 2016 big game season.

HELENA – Whether it’s enjoying a morning sunrise, the pursuit of a trophy animal or finding fare for the table, hunters have no shortage of motives to venture afield.

Stocking the freezer with tasty and lean wild game has long been a major motivation, and for many hunters, their primary reason for harvesting deer, elk and antelope. Eating wild game has garnered even more popularity with health-conscious people recognizing it as nutritious and naturally grown meat. And the so called “locavore” diet, consisting of as many locally produced foods as possible, plays a more recent but growing hunter incentive.

So how much antelope, deer and elk meat does Montana produce every year?

The answer, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Conservation and Education Bureau Chief Thomas Baumeister, is more than 9.3 million pounds.

“Although meat may not be the only motivation for hunting, we’re recognizing that more and more people are coming to hunting for the meat,” he said. “It may not be certified organic but it definitely has all those facets that they’re looking for.”

Calling it a “wild meat economy,” Baumeister quantified wild game production by taking the average weight of meat produced per animal multiplied by average harvest numbers from 2012 to 2014.

Elk produced the most wild meat at more than 4.6 million pounds, followed by whitetail deer at nearly 2.3 million pounds, mule deer with nearly 2.1 million pounds and antelope at about 350,000 pounds.

That’s enough meat to serve the population of Montana 81.3 portions each at the USDA’s recommendation of 1.8 ounces of red meat per day. Montanans could enjoy a 4-ounce portion for nearly 37 meals.

The details go further, with poundage per hunting district and per square mile. Maps showing which districts produce the most wild game may help meat-seeking hunters key in on areas, Baumeister noted.

“You can quickly get into the conversation of what it is about these areas and from a habitat standpoint that makes these wild meat-rich areas,” he said.

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Wild game as a menu item has the advantage of being “nutrient dense”, typically with less fat and calories than store-bought meat while still providing plenty of protein, said Lynn Paul, Montana State University Extension food and nutrition specialist. While all lean cuts of meat fit into a healthy diet, wild game preparation often serves to further reduce fat that remains on store-bought meat.

“When a beef product comes from the store, frequently a person chooses to cut off fat but not everyone does,” she said. “When I’ve seen people cutting up wild game, they’ve been meticulous at getting the fat out of the product. That adds to the concept of nutrient-dense.”

Nutritional information from Texas A&M University notes a 4-ounce portion of whitetail deer contains 2.2 grams of fat, 27 grams of protein and 128 calories. By comparison, a top loin cut of beef contains 26.1 grams of fat, 21 grams of protein and 323 calories.

Paul cautions those eating wild game to use reputable resources for cooking guidelines such as the USDA and extension services. Safely handling and quickly processing game is also important to avoid foodborne illness.

Looking at hunter motives within the wild meat economy offers an additional tool for wildlife managers, Baumeister said. With the greater attention to food sourcing and quality, understanding not only wildlife populations but the many reasons hunters hunt is important for FWP as it works to retain and recruit hunters.

“I think we’ve maybe been bogged down in a conventional way of looking at things. We’ve typically looked at wildlife numbers and harvest, and that’s not a criticism because for a long time we had too few elk,” he said. “But now that we have a healthy resource and we look at the market space, we can spend more time understanding our customers. Wild meat is another way of telling the story.”

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