Buck and fawn numbers good

If it isn't the good old days for deer in Montana, it's certainly going to be much, much better days ahead for mule deer and whitetails in the state.

Mid-winter deer surveys throughout Big Sky Country show that buck numbers are good and fawn numbers are very good pretty much all across the state.

The surveys were completed in December and January, after the hunting seasons, by biologists in Super Cub airplanes and helicopters, according to Charlie Eustace, regional wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Billings.

"There are 67 trend areas just on mule deer and 13 census areas in the state," he said. "On the trend areas, they're flown once post-season and once in a recruitment survey. That's to see what our post-winter survival is.

"We fly the census areas three times. We do those to do more extensive population modeling," Eustace said.

Biologists are flying the spring recruitment surveys now and results haven't been tabulated yet. But based on the post-season winter surveys, the deer herd in Montana is definitely on the rise.

As part of the surveys, biologists counted deer and then compared the number of fawns per 100 does and bucks per 100 does.

Fawn numbers per 100 does generally ranged in the 60s, 70s and 80s across the state - all of which are very good numbers for after the hunting season. A few of the areas even went over 100 - meaning that twin fawns were so abundant that more than 100 fawns per 100 does survived into the winter.

Buck numbers were also generally good with figures ranging mostly in the 20s per 100 does across the state. Variations were more widespread in the buck numbers, however, with some districts ranging down into the single digits and teens while a few were up in the 40s per 100 does.

In looking at those buck numbers, however, you also have to figure that last year's buck fawns didn't show up in the final figures. Those buck fawns didn't have any antlers yet. They' ll be added into the buck totals when they grow their first spikes or forkhorns this year.

The bottom line, especially in the wake of a mild winter, is that the deer herd is rebuilding fairly rapidly, with a good fawn crop expected again this spring.

"We are well on the way to recovery," said Eustace. "In most cases, fawn/doe ratios were better than they have been in the past few years. A little surprisingly, buck numbers were also good. Sometimes they drop when you have bucks-only hunting and we had that in many areas last year."

Eustace said that hunters looking forward toward fall should still expect to see a fairly young deer herd, which is typical of a rebuilding population.

"There are going to be a lot of yearling bucks out there - spikes and forkhorns," he said. "But we should have quite a few two and three year-olds out there."

Older age, trophy class bucks will once again be relatively few in number this fall, but the bigger number of two-and-three-year-olds does offer promise for seasons ahead.

Eustace said signs of a bigger deer population than in recent years are also being noted in the deer damage calls that are already beginning to trickle into his office.

"We've already had several calls from people about deer, wanting to know if we're going to be liberalizing the seasons this year," he said. "Some of the reasons we're getting calls is that a lot of the grass hasn't greened up yet, but the winter wheat is greening up. Plus, there are more deer out there."

Eustace said he expected the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission to increase the number of antlerless B tags that are issued for the 2000 fall seasons. Those decisions on B tags will be made at the August meeting of the commission.

Based on what he has heard from elsewhere, the building deer herds in Montana are indicative of what's happening in other states as well.

"It has been my understanding that mule deer throughout the West are on an upward swing," Eustace said. "We expect a good fawn crop this spring. Our deer numbers are definitely rising."

Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted by telephone at: (406) 657-1395, or by e-mail at: henckel@billingsgazette.com

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