As summer begins to wind down, hunting season in Montana is about to heat up.
Taking to the woods with rifle or bow in hand is a hallowed tradition in our state. Secret spots are held sacred — passed down from father or mother to daughter or son only in whispers or, better yet, the experience of a long day afield.
And while we can’t give you any insight into a new secret spot, we can give you a good idea of what animal populations are like across the state, recognizing of course the value of a day spent hunting Montana’s most majestic wildlife is never directed by population estimates alone.
In several hunting districts, elk shoulder seasons start on Aug. 15, general archery season starts Sept. 3 and general rifle season begins Oct. 22.
Montana hunters enjoy an uncommonly long hunting season, with the avid hunters who pursue both archery and rifle hunting having more than three months to be in the field. Around the state Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ wildlife managers in general are reporting solid numbers of elk, deer and antelope.
Tucked up to the Canadian border and including some of the most remote forests in Montana, FWP’s Region 1 is a dynamic area to pursue elk and deer.
Mild winters continue to help elk calf survival and recruitment. Elk populations in many areas in northwestern Montana are stable to increasing. Elk numbers in “backcountry” HDs 150 and 151 appear to be holding steady. Elk numbers in the lower Clark Fork area, the region’s best elk producer, continue recent favorable trends with good calf numbers recorded during spring surveys. Adult bull numbers observed in surveys appear to be stable in many areas and should provide good hunting opportunities for the 2016 season.
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.
Region-wide hunters pursuing white-tailed deer 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 sixth straight year. Limited doe hunting opportunity is available both during the general season and through B-licenses in many hunting districts.
FWP’s Region 2 includes the lower Clark Fork River Valley and adjacent mountains to the expansive Blackfoot River Valley all the way to Lincoln. It also extends south to the Bitterroot Valley and east to Butte. Generally, big game numbers look good across the board in western Montana, with only a few exceptions.
Antelope distribution is limited in Region 2 and centered in the Deer Lodge area. Numbers seem to be gradually increasing, and hunters who drew special licenses in Region 2 should have good hunting, with landowner permission.
About 30,000 elk inhabit Region 2, and about half tend to be on private agricultural lands during hunting season. Elk numbers are as strong as ever across the region, but elk distribution is in constant flux, in response to changing climate patterns, the recovery of large carnivores, changing agricultural practices and checkered hunting access. As a result, expect to find changes in hunting regulations, and double-check before heading out this fall.
Elk numbers are either at or above population objectives in every hunting district except HD250 (which saw a population increase this year, but is still below objective). We hope for high success for B-license holders particularly in HDs 204 and 261, where elk are especially abundant. Also, hunters with a Permit to Hunt from a Vehicle (PTHV) may now harvest antlerless elk on their general license in every Bitterroot district except 250 and 270. We observed lower than average bull numbers in HD240 during the spring survey, but bull numbers elsewhere were average to above average. HD270 still receives high hunting pressure and FWP encourages hunters to practice safe shooting around concentrated elk herds, private property, and other hunters.
All of our elk counts this year were the same or higher for the Blackfoot than in the past few years. Generally speaking we are at or above objective valley-wide. Bull harvest was lower in some districts last year and higher in others.
Upper Clark Fork
Elk numbers are high in the Upper Clark Fork and higher than desired on private lands. Hunters should be aware that a B-license is required to participate in any of the shoulder seasons (early or late) that are available in certain districts. Some B-licenses were only available in the special license drawing, and others are available for purchase at any license agent until Oct. 21. In all cases, hunters should secure permission from private landowners before purchasing B-licenses because access is not guaranteed. Several Block Management areas exist in the Upper Clark Fork, thanks to the cooperation of landowners in those areas.
Lower Clark Fork
The Lower Clark Fork poses the greatest challenge for elk populations and hunters in Region 2. The terrain is rugged and densely forested in most places, and provides excellent habitat for wolves and mountain lions atop a limited forage base for elk. Increasing numbers of elk live on the few large tracts of private agricultural land. Elk in the Burdette Creek area remain at extremely low levels. Somewhat unexpectedly, there are early indications of elk numbers rebounding in other scattered, remote habitats.
White-tailed deer numbers are generally on the increase following a decline in 2006-2010. Fawn production was notably strong in the spring of 2015, which likely points to a good harvest this fall. Mule deer numbers remain low overall compared to historic levels, but are increasing on many private lands. We’re getting reports of good mule deer bucks finally recruiting into some populations where limited buck permits have been in place for about 15 years. Fortunately, Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) has not been a factor for whitetails since an unprecedented outbreak occurred in the Missoula Valley in 2013, although the potential for an EHD event still exists each year until the hard frosts arrive. Hunters should be aware that many hunting districts in Region 2 require a permit to hunt mule deer bucks, and there have been other changes for deer hunting in some districts in recent years. Check your regulations before heading out.
If the increase in overall mule deer numbers in HD 270 observed during the spring can serve as an indicator for Bitterroot-wide herds, mule deer hunters should fare well this season. We have evidence that winter mortalities may not have been significant this year, although we observed some summer doe mortality in the farmlands, possibly due in part to stress from the hot, dry weather. We observed numerous quality bucks especially in HD270 during summer field work; elsewhere, we expect an average buck harvest.
For white-tailed deer, HDs 240, 250, and 270 no longer allow antlerless harvest during the first nine days of the rifle season, but this opportunity is still available during archery season and for youth hunters. Deer are abundant in pockets throughout the valley and hunters should be able to capitalize on over-the-counter doe licenses available in HDs 260 and 262.
White-tailed deer have increased or stayed the same across the Blackfoot with the past two easy winters. Mule deer numbers are holding steady but not great in the Blackfoot.
Upper Clark Fork
Numbers of whitetails and mule deer seem to be increasing, generally speaking. Across much of the Upper Clark Fork, deer are concentrated primarily on and around private agricultural fields, especially in the Deer Lodge Valley. Remember to obtain landowner permission before hunting private lands and please be courteous and respectful, whether the landowner is enrolled in the Block Management program, or whether she manages her own access.
Lower Clark Fork
White-tailed deer numbers continue to increase west of Missoula, with the exception of the Clark Fork bottoms between Missoula and Frenchtown, where the recovery from the 2013 EHD outbreak has been slow. A closure to the use of deer B-licenses in that portion of HD 260—an archery-only area—lying west of Highway 93 in Missoula County remains in effect this fall, to continue allowing deer numbers to rebound from EHD. Mule deer numbers seem steady, though low compared to days gone by.
From the Big Belt Mountains in the north to the Snow Crest Mountains in the south, FWP’s Region 3 covers some of Montana’s best and most diverse big game habitat.
2016 Summer surveys indicate antelope populations in HDs 320 (Tobacco Roots), 321 (Ruby-Blacktail), and 330 (Centennial Sage) remain stable compared to 2015. At lower elevations, conditions are very dry and antelope are beginning to move toward irrigated agricultural lands. In HDs 320 and 321 hunters might have to seek permission to hunt private lands in order to access many of the antelope until wetter conditions return.
Antelope numbers are up in HD 341 (Highlands) but are found mainly on private land. Hunters should start early to secure access.
Antelope hunting opportunity in the Townsend area (HDs 371, 380, 390) will be largely similar to last year with the exception of HD 380 (Winston Flats) where an increase in B-licenses will result in increased opportunity to harvest does and fawns.
Meanwhile, antelope are higher than average in HD 360 (Madison) and beginning to rebound in HD 311 after years at low numbers (Gallatin-Madison-Horseshoe Hills). To the east, in HD 338 (Shields River North) antelope numbers have rebounded after declines in recent years and are near or above long term average.
In HDs 339 (Shields River South) and 340 (West Boulder) antelope numbers remain above long-term averages, with new opportunity for license holders to purchase an additional doe/fawn license. New HD 313 was opened this year, including the southwest portion of Paradise Valley and West Gardiner Basin. Antelope are mostly on private land in Paradise Valley, and migrate through public and private land in Gardiner Basin.
Following a robust harvest year in 2015, observed elk populations in the Tobacco Root and Gravelly Elk Management Units were reduced by 13 and 19 percent respectively. Both populations are back within management objectives. The population reduction was at its greatest across the southern portion of the Gravelly Elk Management Unit. Hunters should expect to observe fewer elk here than the past two years, especially within the Centennial and Sage Creek portions of the Gravelly Elk Management Units. Hunter participation remained very high in 2015. As with all years, hunter success will be influenced by snowfall, and the hunters’ willingness to distance themselves from motorized routes.
HD 329 (Horse Prairie-Bannack) and the entire Tendoy Elk Management Unit is now a five-week brow-tined bull/antlerless hunt. In the Highlands (HD 340), hunters will be able to harvest brow-tined bulls and antlerless elk on a general license during the first 16 days of the general season. In HD 350 (Whitetail) and 370 (Bull Mountains), there will be five-week brow-tined bull/antlerless elk hunting on the general license since there is an abundance of elk in these districts.
Hunters will need to be sure and read their regulations before hunting in the Townsend area this fall due to major regulation and boundary changes affecting the various districts (380, 390, 391, 392). There will be shoulder season (early and late) hunting opportunities on private land in HD 390. HD 391 saw a major boundary change for this year and a liberalization of the regulations with the five-week general season now being brow-tined/antlerless elk on a general license. The vast majority of the elk in 391 will be on private land during the general season, so hunters may want to focus on securing access in that district.
Elk are above objective in the Bridgers, and within objective in the upper Madison, Spanish Peaks, and lower Gallatin. Elk numbers are below objective in the upper Gallatin Canyon and portions of the Madison. To the east, elk numbers have decreased in the Shields, but are still well above objective on the west side (HD 393). Despite high abundance of elk, this district is almost entirely private land and it can be difficult to obtain access. On the east side of the Shields (HD 315), elk numbers are within objective. This district has gained popularity during both archery and rifle season, and hunters should expect hunter congestion in areas near roads.
Elk numbers in Paradise Valley have been slowly increasing in recent years, with elk numbers above objective in HD 317 (Upper Yellowstone East), and at the high end of objective in HD 314 (Upper Yellowstone West). Elk are more abundant on the north end of 314 but access is more limited. Opportunity for elk hunting on forest service land in 317 is better earlier in the season, as elk tend to congregate on private lands as the season progresses.
Mule deer populations remained stable relative to 2015 in much of southwest Montana. Hunters should be aware of a regulation changes across several hunting districts that will allow for the harvest of an antlered or antlerless mule deer with a general license. There will be no second antlerless licenses available in these districts. See regulations for details. And while mule deer numbers are still recovering on national forest land in the districts around Townsend (380, 390, 391, 392), they are starting to become rather plentiful on private land in some areas, particularly in HD 391 which will again have B-license hunting opportunity for antlerless mule deer off national forest land. 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 and Butte areas. In Park County (East Bridgers, West Crazies, Paradise Valley and Gardiner) mule deer numbers have increased from low points in 2011-2013 and have remained stable over the past three years, yet buck harvest has remained below average.
White-tailed deer populations are growing and deer are distributed mostly across private lands. Hunters will need to gain landowner permission to hunt. Hunters should be aware of changes to the over-the-counter antlerless B-licenses in the Ennis, Twin Bridges and Dillon area. These licenses are now valid for antlerless white-tailed deer harvest across multiple hunting districts. Again, see regulations for details. White-tailed deer numbers continue to be relatively stable in most areas around Townsend with the highest numbers being found along the Missouri River and Crow Creek (Toston/Radersburg areas) drainages.
Montana FWP’s Region 4 stretches from the Rocky Mountain Front to the west to the breaks of the Missouri River to the east. It is home to vast stretches of prairie, along with some of Montana’s most majestic high lonesome country. Elk, deer and antelope are found across the region.
Antelope numbers are still recovering from recent harsh winters and spotty fatalities caused by past late-summer and short-lived hemorrhagic viruses brought on by biting insects. But populations have been increasing and that has been reflected in an increasing number of tags issued.
Elk populations are stable. In addition to the general firearms season, there are additional opportunities for elk hunters, including the shoulder seasons. However, obtaining access remains the challenge for hunters in areas along the Rocky Mountain Front, central Montana’s island mountain ranges, or in the Missouri River Breaks. In short, there are no shortage of elk in Region 4, but hunters will work to gain access.
Mule deer populations are increasing and approaching long-term averages. The mild winter and the just-enough-moisture spring certainly helped. Look for good numbers of mulies throughout Region 4.
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 and the recovery continues.
South central Montana
Montana FWP’s Region 5 is really where the mountains meet the plains. Elk are prevalent in many of the mountainous southern portions of the district and mule deer, whitetail deer and antelope find good habitat through much of the region.
Antelope numbers are recovering and are better than last year in most south central Montana districts. The number of antelope available to hunters has been well below average during the past four years because of an outbreak of blue tongue and subsequent difficult winters. Antelope went into this past winter in good shape and the weather was generally favorable, leading to fair fawn production and improving animal counts.
Elk numbers in the upper Boulder drainage remain near objective while numbers in all other Region 5 hunting districts are well above objective and near all-time highs. Most elk in south central Montana are restricted to private land where access is difficult. Hunters throughout much of the region continue to enjoy liberal elk hunting regulations.
This fall, hunters can take advantage of three “elk shoulder seasons,” some starting as early as Aug. 15. During those seasons, general elk tags are valid only for antlerless elk on private land. The first season runs from Aug. 15 to the start of the archery season. A second, short season runs during the week between the end of the general archery season and the start of the general rifle season. The final shoulder season is open from Nov. 28 through the end of the year. In some hunting districts, the late season can run until Feb. 15.
Mule deer are faring better than in the previous few years, but still below the long-term average. Mule deer numbers throughout south central Montana have been at a low for the past two years because of cyclical population trends with no defining event. Mule deer numbers have improved most in the prairie hunting districts and have not fared as well along the Beartooth front.
White-tailed deer numbers are strong and at or above average in the Stillwater and Boulder drainages south of the Yellowstone River. In hunting districts north of the Yellowstone River and along the Musselshell valley, white-tailed deer numbers are recovering from an outbreak of EHD two years ago, but they remain below average. EHD is similar to blue tongue, which affects antelope.
From the island mountain ranges to the famed Missouri breaks to the glaciated uplands, Region 6 has a lot to offer for big game species diversity and hunting opportunity. In general, mule deer populations are above average, whitetails and antelope are recovering, and high elk numbers are prompting increased tags and shoulders seasons.
Antelope numbers continue to increase across the region after several mild winters, but remain below the long-term average. Those hunting districts north of U.S. Highway 2 that were the hardest hit in the winter of 2010-2011 continue to see gradual increases in overall numbers. License numbers remain low in most areas, but those hunters holding a license should have plenty of opportunity to harvest an antelope.
Mule deer trends continue to show a steady recovery across the region. Regional numbers indicate above average mule deer levels overall, but differences are seen across the region and in isolated areas. Mule deer trend area numbers in the eastern half of the region (Glasgow area and east) are at or above the average. The western half of the region (Malta and Havre area), however, are more variable across the trend areas, ranging from below average to above average. This same trend was seen in fawn-to-adult ratios that are also conducted during the spring survey.
The post-hunting-season surveys showed the region-wide mule deer population at 49 percent above average, and 17 percent above the 2015 surveys. The spring surveys showed region-wide populations at 47 percent above average, and 29 percent above the 2015 survey. For 2016, all Region 6 hunting districts will be managed under the standard regulation for mule deer, which includes either-sex for a general deer license, as well as additional B-licenses. The exception to this is HD 652 which is a limited permit, mule deer buck-only hunting district. HDs 630, 631, 632, 640, 650, 651, 670, 680 and 690 had a conservative number of mule deer antlerless/B-licenses available this year.
A pressing factor in managing deer populations is the threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) that is moving further south in Alberta and Saskatchewan toward the Montana border. In 2014, FWP initiated a mule deer telemetry study north of Chinook in HD 600 to gather data on the movement of deer between the U.S. and Canada. “It is just a matter of when and where CWD will be detected in Montana,” said FWP wildlife biologist Ryan Williamson. “Higher deer numbers tend to influence the spread of the disease, so we take that into consideration when developing hunting season regulations.”
Whitetail populations region wide are approximately 39 percent below average. Numbers continue to recover in the eastern part of the region but are still 25 percent below average, while the western portion of the region is 58 percent below the average. Hunters should still expect lower densities along the Milk and Missouri Rivers and better numbers in the prairie habitats. With whitetail numbers increasing across Region 6, a single-region antlerless whitetail B-licenses will be available for over the counter purchase starting Aug. 8. The licenses will be limited to one per hunter.
Elk numbers are above average and above management objectives across the Breaks and Bear’s Paw Hunting Districts in Region 6. All elk hunting in the Bears Paw Mountains and the Missouri River Breaks is by special permits awarded via the annual drawings. Elk in these areas are most often found in secure habitat, often a mile or more from active roads and other human activity. Hunters are reminded to seek out access to private land early in some areas. Elk densities are low in the general-season hunting area north of Highway 2.
The total number of elk in the Missouri Breaks is 20 percent above the long term average, with average calf-cow ratios and above average bull-cow ratios.
FWP implemented changes during the season-setting process for additional elk hunting opportunities for the 2016 hunting season. 300 antlerless elk permits were added, which are valid for HD 620, 621, 622, 630, 631, and 632, but not valid on CMR National Wildlife Refuge lands. In addition, 500 antlerless elk B licenses were made available for a Dec. 15-31 shoulder season in HD 620, 621, 622, 630, 631, and 632, also not valid on CMR National Wildlife Refuge lands. The additional antlerless elk hunting opportunities were designed with the help of the Breaks Elk Working Group to provide private landowners with more elk management.
The Bears Paw elk are up 13 percent from the long term average. Calf-cow ratios were average and bull-cow ratios were below the long-term average.
With elk numbers also over objective in the Bears Paw districts, FWP implemented additional antlerless elk hunting opportunities for the 2016 hunting season. 100 antlerless elk permits were added, which are valid for HD 680 and 690 on private land outside block management areas. In addition, 100 antlerless elk B licenses were made available for a Dec. 15-31 shoulder season in HD 680 and 690, valid on public and private land.
The badlands, farmland and rolling prairie of FWP region 7 is home to a vast number of animals, including a dynamic and healthy population of mule deer and a growing number of elk.
Montana antelope populations are continuing to recover and grow from previous years’ winter kills and low fawn numbers in central and eastern Montana.
Summer production surveys indicate that antelope numbers have increased 86 percent from the low in 2012, and are now 8 percent below the region wide long-term average.
Antelope numbers in the northern portion of Region 7 are near long-term average. In the western portion of the region, antelope numbers continue to increase but remain well below historic averages. Antelope numbers are best in the southeastern corner of the state, and FWP recommends that hunters head in that direction for antelope this fall.
This year, FWP is offering a few more special licenses, which reflects the improving population.
Successful antelope license applicants may recognize increased fawn production in many areas as populations respond to this year’s favorable weather and habitat conditions.
As always, FWP wildlife biologists and game wardens 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.
These are good times for elk hunters as Montana elk populations continue to be strong across most of the state.
In many hunting districts, however, access to private lands can be difficult, which can affect hunting success given landownership patterns and distribution of elk.
Even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, remember that Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for elk with just a general hunting license.
Here’s a regional rundown on what elk hunters can expect this season.
The 2016 winter surveys indicated that elk in Region 7 are continuing moderate growth and gradual expansion into unoccupied available habitat. FWP biologists observed strong calf recruitment (50 calves per 100 cows) and an excellent composition of bulls (41 per 100 cows).
The Missouri Breaks (HD 700) and Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, 705) remain the two “core” elk populations. Outside of these areas, elk numbers in Region 7 are low, distribution is spotty and elk are primarily found on private land where public hunting access is limited.
Bull hunting is by permit only in HDs 700, 702, 704, 705 and the far western portion of 701. In HD 703 and in the rest of 701, hunters can pursue either-sex elk with a general license.
New for the 2016 hunting season is the 007-00 B license. This license is valid for antlerless elk throughout Region 7 except for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Custer National Forest. An easy way for hunters to remember where they can use the 007-00 antlerless elk license is that it’s valid everywhere expect what is green on a Bureau of Land Management ownership map (green being national forest or federal wildlife refuge areas). It is important for hunters to note that there are no elk shoulder seasons in any of the hunting districts in Region 7.
Additional antlerless opportunities exist in the region via a general and/or B-license, and hunters are encouraged to review the regulations for more details on those opportunities.
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 during 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 that Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for deer with just a general hunting license.
Here’s a regional rundown on what deer hunters can expect this season.
Spring trend surveys show that mule deer populations have climbed to 47 percent above long-term average and populations are 29 percent higher than last year. The population increase is a result of another year of excellent overwinter survival and fawn recruitment (56 yearlings per 100 adults—which includes bucks and yearling does). Buck ratios continue to be high at 37 bucks per 100 does post-hunting season but, as in the past couple of years, hunters can expect to see a lot of young bucks in the population.
The mule deer population is currently comprised mostly of young, reproductively fit animals. That is characteristic of a population undergoing rapid population growth. Tough 2009-10 and 2010-11 winters resulted in heavy mortality and reduced populations region wide. Those winters were followed by several years of mild conditions and excellent deer production, with the youngest of those strong year-classes of deer just now beginning to reach maturity. While deer numbers are generally high region wide, numbers remain just below long-term average in HD 702.
Whitetail numbers have continued to increase in Region 7. EHD outbreaks have been localized in scale and small in magnitude since 2012. Local hunters will recall the last major EHD outbreak in 2011, which caused heavy mortality in whitetails throughout many parts of Region 7.
“We are at a good place right now with whitetail numbers,” said John Ensign, MFWP Region 7 wildlife manager. “As deer densities increase, the risk of major EHD outbreaks increases. The disease is transmitted by a biting midge. When you get deer in close proximity, it’s an ideal situation for disease transmission.”
“It’s impossible to stockpile wildlife, including whitetails,” Ensign said. “Whether in the form of disease, drought or harsh winters, Mother Mature always intervenes.”
Hunters who do their homework by scouting and visiting with private landowners should have success locating good areas to hunt whitetails.