By BRUCE AUCHLY, for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks
The news for big game this fall in north central Montana is decidedly mixed.
Elk and white-tailed deer numbers are solid. However, that’s generally not the case for antelope and mule deer.
For hunters that means numerous opportunities to hunt antlerless elk and whitetails, but lower quotas and fewer antlerless licenses for antelope and mule deer. Also in much of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 4 hunters may take only buck mule deer on their deer A tag.
The consistent good news starts with elk.
“We have lots of elk,” says Brent Lonner, FWP wildlife biologist in Fairfield. Lonner oversees hunting districts south of the Teton River along the Rocky Mountain Front.
Last winter, Lonner counted about 2,700 elk on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area west of Augusta.
“That’s on the upper end of what we want,” he says, “and the number of bulls are still above average.”
The Sun River WMA is a traditional wintering range for elk on the Front.
Mule deer numbers are slowly improving, Lonner says. “It’s better than 10 years ago, but not like it was in the late 1970s and ‘80s.”
And white-tailed deer are plentiful, he adds.
Around Great Falls and south in the Little Belt Mountains the story is the same.
“There are plenty of elk in and around the Little Belt Mountains,” says Adam Grove, FWP wildlife biologist in White Sulphur Springs, adding getting to those elk can be problematic.
“Access is the issue on private land. On public land, elk availability depends on hunting pressure and weather,” he says. Hunter pressure and early winter weather can push elk from national forest land onto private lands where access is limited.
While there are still lots of white-tailed deer, Grove says, mule deer numbers in the Little Belts continue to be down. This spring the number of fawns that survived the winter was up, but the population rebound won’t quickly.
“It will take several years to get back to normal,” Grove says. “Weather is a big factor.”
“There are lots of elk, but access is difficult,” says Sonya Smith, FWP wildlife biologist in Lewistown.In the Lewistown area elk numbers are up and mule deer and antelope numbers are down. And access is the key.
Also, much of the area around Lewistown is only open to elk hunters with special permits or B licenses that were drawn in a lottery this summer. There are exceptions and elk hunters should read the regulations first.
Mule deer numbers are down in the Missouri Breaks, but the numbers improve on the prairie south of the Missouri River.
For example, in HD 410, which includes the Breaks north of Winnett, the fawn to doe ratio last winter was 49 to 100.
In HD 419, which touches the towns of Geyser, Denton and Hobson, Smith counted 57 fawns per 100 does.
White-tailed deer are still rebounding from last year’s outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD).
“So far we’ve had no reports of the disease this year,” Smith says.