Hunting lands recovering from wildfire season

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Hannah Beebe, age 12, shot her first buck, a 4x4 whitetail, in the Libby Creek area on Sunday Oct. 25 with a .223 caliber rifle. Took it down with one shot.

With hunting seasons for most of Montana’s game animals underway or about to begin, sportsmen and sportswomen are heading into a landscape recovering from some of the worst wildfires in recent memory.

But while over a million acres have burned, Montana hunters are optimistic.

“Mule deer numbers are up, whitetails are starting to recover...everybody’s pretty positive about this upcoming season,” John Borgreen told the Daily Inter Lake.

A founding member of the Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance, Borgreen said fires have altered antelope, elk and game bird movements. But overall, “in these forested areas, fire has been part of the landscape for thousands of years, and it seems like the animals can adapt to it.”

In July, Montana Public Radio’s Mike Hillis found scant documentation of deer and elk fatalities from wildfire.

He also reported that “on winter ranges where fires have not burned for more than 20 years, an acre of winter range will typically yield from 30 to 120 pounds of forage,” he observed. “On winter ranges that burned in the last year or two, however, the production typically jumps to 200 to 3000 pounds of forage per acre.”

Hunters’ experiences this fall have borne these findings out.

In “those areas that have burned, I’ve already seen new growth,” says Trey Curtis, collegiate curriculum and outreach assistant with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

That growth and other aspects of the post-fire landscape, he told the Daily Inter Lake, can serve hunters well.

“There’s new growth and higher nutrients in the grass in areas that have just burned,” he explained. Animals tend to seek out those grasses, so “you can look for [animals in] a specific area.”

At the same time, hunting in those areas demands some safety precautions.

“Recently burned areas generally have a lot of snags,” or dead standing trees, Curtis warns. Falling snags killed two Montana firefighters this past summer.

In addition, “there’s a lot of mop-up in those areas, so there’s a lot of people working in there,” he said, urging hunters to keep that in mind.

And some restrictions and closures remain in place. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ online Block Management Access Guide has information about areas that remain under controls.

But for hunters who heed these warnings, the rewards can be big. Borgreen said that “people have had success” in the season’s early weeks.

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