Montana FWP Fall Hunting Outlook: Good News and Bad News
As is often the case, hunters have both good news and bad news when it comes to the big game hunting outlook for 2022. Here is the report for FWP’s Region 4, north central Montana:
While elk numbers are at all-time high levels with extra harvest opportunities in some areas, mule deer numbers generally still remain lower than in previous years. Mule deer in some mountain ranges experienced significant declines in the last 10 to 15 years, and although mule deer populations in prairie habitats are faring a bit better, drought conditions have hindered populations in some of the eastern areas of Region 4. White-tailed deer populations are considered strong, but pronghorn numbers are mixed, and in many areas, they have still not completely recovered from the tough winter of 2017/18.
Along the northern Rocky Mountain Front, biologist Ryan Rauscher reports that elk numbers are generally above their long-term average, with bull to cow ratios at or near average. In the Sweetgrass Hills, elk numbers remain well over objective, giving hunters opportunity to harvest antlerless elk.
The southern Rocky Mountain Front shows overall stability in elk numbers compared to recent years, according to area biologist Brent Lonner. Sun River elk remain near long-term average for the population with bull to cow numbers slightly above long-term average. Elk numbers southwest of Augusta and in the Birdtail Hills remain above long-term average, with extended (shoulder) seasons in place for both areas to help address high elk numbers.
In most cases, elk populations throughout the Little Belt, Castle and eastern Big Belt Mountains area are at the high end of the range observed in recent times. “Elk numbers in the western Little Belts and eastern Big Belts have increased the most, despite the liberal hunting regulations that have been in place there for some time,” said biologist Jay Kolbe.
Near Great Falls, biologist Jake Doggett says that elk are doing well in the Highwood Mountains and Devils Kitchen hunting districts, where numbers remain well above long-term averages. There was a record high elk count this year, including bulls, across HDs 445 and 455 this past March. Elk are very close to objective numbers in the Little Belts (old HD 413).
Across much of the Golden Triangle, mule deer populations remain above average overall with some increases in antlerless licenses. White-tailed deer numbers are increasing across much of Rauscher’s and Lonner’s areas as well, and in several of their hunting districts, they report that white-tailed deer numbers are strong and should provide good harvest opportunities for both bucks and antlerless deer. Hunters can expect deer distribution to be somewhat patchy because of the drought this year, and they will be concentrated in areas with good forage and cover.
Kolbe reports that although mule deer in the Little Belt, Castle and eastern Big Belt Mountains experienced significant declines 10 to 15 years ago, their numbers have been steadily increasing since then. “I’ve seen some very nice bucks come out of this area during the last several seasons,” said Jay Kolbe, FWP wildlife biologist based in white Sulphur Springs.
Mule deer numbers in the agricultural areas near Great Falls are doing well, but populations in the mountain/mountain foothill areas are still rebounding from lower numbers of the past few years. In some areas near the mountains, mule deer numbers are more than 25 percent below long-term average and the regulations changed to reflect this, so only mule deer bucks can be harvested there on the general deer license. White-tailed deer numbers remain strong and there should be great opportunities for hunters. Doggett suggests utilizing the available whitetail B licenses in the mountain foothill areas where the mule deer regulations switched to antlered buck only.
Pronghorn population numbers in the Golden Triangle are good. Near the Sweetgrass Hills, pronghorn have been well under long-term average in previous years but have recovered somewhat and are just slightly below average this year. The result is more opportunity with an increase in both either-sex and doe/fawn licenses. In the heart of the Golden Triangle district of HD 404, pronghorn numbers have been above average the past couple years. Increased hunter opportunity and drought have brought down pronghorn numbers and licenses have been reduced slightly this year, reflecting the lower numbers seen in summer surveys.
Pronghorn numbers in the greater Augusta area and locations near the Birdtail Hills continue to show stability in numbers, although slightly below long-term average observations. According to Lonner, July surveys showed near average buck numbers but below average fawn numbers. For that reason, among others, pronghorn licenses were reduced in HD 444 for the 2022 season.
Kolbe also reported that pronghorn populations are also doing well. “I saw around 60 fawns per 100 does during my pronghorn survey flights this summer, which is good fawn production,” he said.” Overall pronghorn numbers both north and south of the Little Belts (HDs 430 and 490) continue to recover from declines we saw following the harsh winters a few years ago.”
Surveys suggest that pronghorn across many of Doggett’s hunting districts are still recovering from the tough winters of 2017 and 2018 and also recent drought conditions. For the most part numbers are still below long-term averages. Fawn production seemed better in areas with more cropland, but buck to doe ratios were higher in the mountain foothill areas.
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