By JOLEEN TADEJ
Hunters who witnessed a drop in mule deer numbers in many areas of Montana a few years ago will see improving populations this year as favorable weather and habitat conditions kicked in in 2014 and 2015.
Additionally, in many areas of the state, fawn recruitment has been excellent and populations are doing well.
Even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, remember Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for deer with just a general hunting license.
Montana’s archery season for deer will close Oct. 18. The general deer season opens Oct. 24 and ends Nov. 29.
FWP wildlife biologists and game warders will be operating hunter check-stations throughout the state to collect biological information and ensure regulations are followed. All hunters are required to stop at check stations.
Here’s a regional rundown on what deer hunters can expect this season.
Region 1—Northwestern Montana
- Mule deer populations remain low, but among those hunters willing to put in the time and effort, it’s clearly possible to still harvest a mature “trophy class” buck in some remote areas.
- It’s a different story entirely for white-tailed deer. Region-wide hunters can expect to find more white-tailed deer and an increase in the number of bucks 3 years old and older, as populations continue to rebound from severe winter mortality in 2007 and 2008. Fawn recruitment is good for the fifth straight year. Limited doe hunting opportunity is still in place in most hunting districts, with the exception of hunting district 170 where hunters are encouraged to carefully review regulations for weapon restriction areas.
Region 2—Western Montana
- White-tailed deer are common and numbers remain stable to increasing across most of the region, but mule deer numbers still remain low. FWP has restricted hunting opportunities for antlerless deer to speed population increases in both species. Hunting for white-tailed bucks should continue to improve overall. Hunting for mule deer bucks is by permit-only in many hunting districts.
Region 3 – Southwestern Montana
- In response to two consecutive productive growing seasons and mild winters, mule deer populations are growing rapidly across many parts of the region. Therefore, hunters should expect to see a few more mule deer than last year. In the central part of the region (North Gallatin, East Madison, and Bridgers), mule deer numbers continue to increase from low points in 2010-2011. Mule deer populations are stable to increasing in the Helena area. In the Dillon area, mule deer are generally increasing under favorable environmental conditions the past two years. Be aware there are a number of districts including 300 (Lima Peaks), 302 (Tendoys) and 380 that have a special permit requirement for mule deer; it’s the hunter’s responsibility to know the regulations. Mule deer numbers are slightly up throughout Park County. White-tailed deer numbers appear to be generally stable in the Townsend and Park County areas. And in the Jefferson and Ruby valleys, spring surveys showed an increase of 79 percent and 173 percent respectively, relative to 2014. This growth can be attributed to healthy recruitment and reduced antlerless harvest opportunities.
Region 4—Central Montana
- Mule deer populations are starting to increase but are still below long-term averages.
- White-tailed deer numbers continue to increase, too. After the decline of white-tailed deer in some areas due to EHD—or epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a viral infection carried by a biting midge but that’s harmless to humans—there’s been good white-tailed deer production this year and the recovery continues.
Region 5 — South Central Montana
- White-tailed deer numbers at lower elevations and north of the Yellowstone River appear to be recovering from a 2014 disease outbreak that thinned the herds. Closer to the mountains, numbers remain reasonably strong. Whitetail buck harvest opportunities likely will be similar to last year, while antlerless harvest will remain below average for another year with fewer B-tags issued and conservative management in place.
- Mule deer numbers throughout south central Montana are stable or up slightly from last year, though they remain well below the long-term average. With conservative hunting regulations in place, hunter harvest likely will be similar to last year.
Region 6—Northeastern Montana
- Mule deer numbers are at or above long term averages in the eastern half of the region and at or below long term averages in the western half. In general, mule deer hunters can expect to see more mule deer as compared to recent years.
- White-tailed deer numbers have continued to lag behind mule deer due to EHD outbreaks in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Nonetheless, very good fawn numbers for both white-tailed deer and mule deer have been observed across the region this summer.
Region 7—Southeastern Montana
- Spring trend surveys show that mule deer populations are up a healthy 20 percent from last year and are currently 16 percent above the long-term-average. Overwinter survival last year was good, and fawn recruitment this spring was excellent—65 yearlings per 100 adults. Buck ratios are high at 37 bucks per 100 does but there are a lot of young bucks in the population. That’s characteristic of a population undergoing rapid population growth. The mule deer population here is comprised of primarily young, reproductively fit animals. While deer numbers have generally increased region wide, numbers remain below long-term averages in hunting districts 701 and 702.
- Last year white-tailed deer caught a break from EHD, with all outbreaks localized in scale and small in magnitude. Whitetail numbers can rebound rapidly from declines, and populations in most parts of the region are recovering well from past EHD outbreaks. Populations continue to be variable throughout the region, however, with numbers ranging from below-average to very high at the local scale. Hunters who do their homework by scouting and visiting with private landowners should have success locating good areas to hunt whitetails.