Deer, elk hunting season ends with average results

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Montana’s general deer and elk hunting season ended Sunday with success rates about on par, despite some challenging conditions.

Numbers were slightly down in Northwest Montana’s Region 1. Area hunters took 1,404 animals at the area’s check stations, down from 1,656 last year. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1 Administrator Neil Anderson said that “It was somewhat of an average season, but it wasn’t a bad season.”

Despite some concerns about declining deer populations, many hunters emerged from the brush satisfied.

“Overall I think the season was really good for Montana hunters,” said John Sullivan, chair of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ Montana chapter.

The “general season was great, archery season was great, we had pretty good weather...I know a lot of guys who harvested animals.”

It’s not yet clear what drove the decrease in harvest rates. This year’s total number of hunters was down, from 16,453 to 16,269, along with the success rate, which dropped from 10.1 to 8.6 percent.

Mule deer saw the sharpest decline, from 138 harvested last year to 51 in 2016.

“We don’t have a real good explanation right now as to why that mule deer harvest was low,” Anderson told the Daily Inter Lake.

He said that Fish, Wildlife and Parks was currently working with University of Montana graduate students to assess the deer’s habitat and nutritional situation.

“We’re hoping that will help us work with the Forest Service and land management agencies to improve things on the ground for mule deer.

Other parts of the state saw better harvest results. Region 2, the wildlife agency’s west-central zone, saw a 6 percent increase in total returns, despite a dip in the total number of trips.

And anecdotally, hunters around the state still found success.

“I was on a rifle hunt,” Sullivan remembered. With the snow crunching underfoot, Sullivan explained that “we just did our best to walk as lightly as we could.” They got an elk.

“I saw [photos of] a handful of really nice mule deer bucks taken from our members.” However, Sullivan added that he hadn’t yet had a chance to fully review this year’s data, and that Backcountry Hunters and Anglers had its eye on the mule deer population.

Farther east, Justin Schaaf, the group’s board representative from Region 6, described “a pretty successful hunting season...it seemed as though in Region 6 and Region 7 it was right on average.”

Initially, “it was some tough hunting in Region 7 due to the Lodgepole Fire,” he recalled. He also said that drought conditions prompted landowners to close their lands to hunting early in the season.

Putting aside conflicts over private land access, Eastern Montana hunters supported landowners in this decision. “It was refreshing to see,” Schaaf told the Inter Lake. He said he bagged an antelope and a mule deer buck.

Looking ahead, Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Anderson says that 2017 will be a “season-setting” year, one whose results will inform the 2018-19 hunting season’s structure.

Proposals for that season, he said, will soon be taken up by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which will then solicit comments in person and online throughout the state. Anderson urged hunters to take part in the process.

“Overall, hunters seemed to be enjoying themselves despite some challenging conditions,” Anderson said of the past season. “Most of the hunters I spoke to, including those who did not harvest an animal, stated they were having a good and enjoyable season.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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