Plenty on the prairie
Plenty on the prairie

Pronghorn hunting in eastern Montana shaping up to be best in several years

If you've been contemplating an antelope hunting expedition, this looks like perhaps the best year to pursue the prairie goats in eastern Montana since their populations peaked in the early '90s.

The deadline for applications for antelope hunting permits in the annual Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks special license drawings is June 1.

Antelope populations have been rebuilding steadily for several years after heavy losses during the harsh winter of 1996-97, according to state wildlife officials. Four consecutive mild winters primarily are responsible for the increase, they said.

FWP wildlife managers won't recommend final antelope permit numbers to the FWP Commission until after they complete their summer antelope field surveys in July. But the agency's regional managers all said they expected the tentative permit numbers listed in the Montana Hunting Regulations this spring to remain at least as high, if not increase, in their regions.

The picture for antelope isn't entirely rosy, however, according to FWP biologists.

Severe drought conditions across most of eastern Montana for the second year in a row could have dire consequences for antelope and other wildlife species.

"Drought has a whole bunch of effects on game," said FWP wildlife biologist Claire Simmons of Big Timber. "They go into the winter in poor condition so we could have some mortality. And forage conditions are very poor, which will probably translate into fewer fawns this summer."

That won't have much effect on this hunting season, Simmons said, because the number of adults in the population is high. But if biologists find low fawn recruitment in their summer surveys in southcentral Montana's FWP Region 5, where he works, they probably won't recommend any increase in the tentative permit numbers in the region this fall, Simmons said.

In FWP regions 4 and 6, however, biologists are expecting an increase in the tentative permit numbers, partly in response to the drought.

In FWP Region 7, which covers a huge expanse of southeastern Montana and has the state's largest antelope population, last year's fawn crop was excellent, according to FWP regional wildlife manager John Ensign.

Region 7 biologists conduct a late winter antelope survey in March and April, Ensign said, to get an idea how the animals came through winter. This year, he said, they found that 43 percent of the antelope were last year's fawns, indicating high recruitment in the population. There were 112 fawns per 100 mature does. And the buck-to-doe ratio was also high - 57 bucks per 100 does.

But the drought raises concerns, said Ensign.

"The drought's not looking good," he said. "We already have game damage reports. Moisture in Miles City is one inch behind for the year. Things look green, but it won't take much to dry it out. It's a little too early for these 90-degree-plus days we've had lately. And it's breezy. It sucks the moisture out of the vegetation.

"If the drought takes hold, and the forage is not there to support them through the winter, we'll try to reduce the numbers as much as we can."

Region 7's tentative regulations offer 13,000 either-sex antelope permits through the drawing, with up to 6,000 additional doe-fawn permits available to successful applicants. Those permits are valid in any hunting district beginning with the number 7.

Region 7 offered about the same number of antelope permits last year, when hunters enjoyed a very successful harvest, Ensign said.

"That's what we're shooting for," he said, "because numbers are good and building."

In northcentral Montana's FWP Region 4, FWP regional wildlife manager Graham Taylor said drought is his overriding concern now for big game.

"Antelope numbers have been building substantially in Region 4 for the last two or three years, including this year, even in the face of the drought," Taylor said. "But who knows? We're running toward the high side in total numbers. But we may see a dramatic drop in production depending on whether it rains. I anticipate upping the number of permits, if for no other reason than we expect a die-off this winter if the drought continues. One strategy might be to let the hunters take some of them."

Most of Region 6, in northeastern Montana, is slightly better off than other areas of the state in terms of drought, according to FWP regional information officer Todd Glaser of Glasgow. But increasing numbers of antelope for several years may be reason to increase permits over the tentative numbers, he said.

"The best bet" for antelope hunters in Region 6, said Glaser, is in McCone County south of Wolf Point, an area that offers high antelope numbers and relatively light hunting pressure.

FWP Region 3, in southwestern Montana, is the nearest antelope hunting grounds for most western Montana hunters. Permit numbers are relatively low compared to other antelope regions, however.

Antelope hunting opportunities in Region 3 this fall should be on a par with the past couple of years, said Joel Peterson, FWP regional wildlife manager.

Drought conditions could have other consequences for hunters, said Simmons.

"Animals will be more concentrated because of the availability of forage and lack of moisture," he said. "People hunting in the same areas they have in the past may find a redistribution of animals. A ranch that had a pile of antelope last year may not have antelope this year. That could be a real problem this year. And that's true in all of the regions, because drought is prevalent everywhere north of Yellowstone Park."

Chances of seeing a mature buck this year are somewhat better than in recent years, Simmons said. Several consecutive mild winters have increased survival of older bucks after the winter of 1996-97 took its toll on the oldest and youngest animals in the population.

On the other hand, he added, horn growth could suffer because of the poor quality of forage.

"Antelope regrow their horns in the winter," said Simmons, "and the growth is completed by June. I predict, that horn-wise, we may see less horn growth than in a normal year."

Access is a primary concern for antelope hunters, because of the high percentage of private land in eastern Montana.

FWP's Block Management Program, in which land owners are compensated by the department for allowing public hunting access, could be the solution for many hunters, according to Ron Uchytil, regional coordinator of the program in Missoula.

"There are other options for private land," Uchytil said. "You can still go bang on doors. But you'll probably need to go over ahead of time to get your land access lined up."

Many people apply for antelope permits based on the odds of getting a permit, he added, without regard to the availability of hunting access.

In Region 7, the permits are valid in any hunting district, he said. But in other regions, permits are restricted to certain districts, where the bulk of private land could be posted or have leased hunting rights.

FWP's Block Management booklets for each region, which list all the Block Management lands, won't be available to hunters until Aug. 16. But if a hunter still has last year's booklet for a region, chances are good that most of the landowners will participate in the program again, Uchytil said.

If you aren't fortunate enough to have last year's booklet, he said, you should call the FWP regional office where you plan to hunt, and talk to the regional Block Management coordinator about access opportunities in different hunting districts.

Many Block Management lands include parcels of state school trust lands, which require a State Lands Recreation Permit for hunting, Uchytil said.

He also advises hunters to get a federal Bureau of Land Management map for the area they plan to hunt. BLM lands are open to the public and offer another access option.

"Wherever I go," said Uchytil, "I get a BLM map and draw the Block Management area on it. It makes it a lot easier to tell where you are. When you go over east, you've got to be aware of fence lines and property ownership. The Block Management lands might be a checkerboard of ownership. You've got to pay attention."

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at dgadbow@missoulian.com.

Learn about antelope before you hunt

Antelope hunters can find out more about antelope biology, and how and where to hunt them at a seminar offered Thursday evening in Missoula by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The free seminar will be held at the FWP office, 3201 Spurgin Road, at 7 p.m. The public is welcome.

Claire Simmons, a FWP wildlife biologist from Big Timber, will discuss antelope biology, population trends and hunting season permits. Hunting strategies, trophy judging and field identification of bucks and does will be covered.

Dan Burns, FWP game warden from Deer Lodge, will discuss ethical considerations of antelope hunting, regulations and meat preservation in warm weather.

Ron Uchytil, FWP Block Management coordinator in Missoula, will help hunters learn to use the Block Management Program to find a place to hunt antelope.

The program is the third in a series offered in Missoula by FWP through its continuing Hunter Education Program.

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