MILES CITY, Mont.– Recent surveys across Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) Region 7 indicate that antelope populations are recovering but remain well below long-term averages. Wildlife Biologists completed seven population trend surveys across the region and observed 1,855 antelope—21% more than in 2012. Even with a 21% increase, the 2013 trend count was 50% below long-term average and 66% below the 10 year peak count that occurred in 2006. “Antelope populations in the region are heavily influenced by annual weather conditions and disease outbreaks,” said Wildlife Biologist Dean Waltee. “For example, a blue tongue outbreak in 2008 reduced populations in the northwest portion of the region by 33%. Before populations could recover, severe spring and winter conditions beginning in the spring of 2009 and continuing until the fall of 2011 reduced region wide populations by 76%.” The 2013 increase was the first observed since harsh weather conditions subsided during the fall of 2011. “Similar declines were observed following the severe winters of 1978 and 1979,” said Waltee. “In 1980, biologists observed densities similar to what were observed over the past two years. Those populations recovered to average or above average densities by 1984 or 1985.”
According to Waltee, “We are seeing increased numbers of adult bucks and does, which was expected given recent mild winter conditions and reduced harvest opportunity. In 2012, 3,100 antelope licenses were issued region wide; an 87% reduction from 2009 when 13,000 either-sex and 10,000 doe-fawn licenses were issued.” Of a total harvest of 1643 antelope in 2012, only 250 doe antelope were harvested region wide. “We were about as restrictive as possible with doe harvest last season,” Waltee said. Antelope license quotas will remain at 3,000 either-sex and 100 doe-fawn for the 2013 season.
In localized areas, biologists are seeing reduced fawn production and survival rates. According to Waltee, “It’s definitely something to keep a close eye on but at this point, I’m not overly concerned. I suspect extremely dry conditions last summer had an impact on this year’s fawn production and survival of last year’s fawns to yearlings. Region-wide yearling recruitment increased relative to 2012 and having more yearling (non fawn-producing) does in the population causes the fawn-to-doe ratio to decrease. Given exceptional precipitation this summer and barring severe conditions this winter, I expect to see fawn-to-doe ratios and yearling recruitment improve next year. I also expect to see continued population growth.”
Wildlife Biologist Bernie Hildebrand suspects that a blue tongue outbreak in 2008 and the severe winter of 2010-11 have rendered a significant proportion of the doe population in northwestern Region 7 (HD 700 and 701) barren. “I was seeing large groups of does with few or no fawns,” said Hildebrand. “That’s not normal.” Using annual production and recruitment data, Hildebrand estimates that 35% of adult does in northwestern Region 7 are no longer producing fawns. “Fawn-to-doe ratios are expected to increase as that barren segment is harvested or dies out and is replaced by younger more productive does, but it’s going to take a couple of years,” said Hildebrand.
Antelope population status varied across the region and so will hunting opportunities. “The highest antelope density was observed near Alzada”, said Dean Waltee. “I observed about 70 bucks per 100 does in southern Carter County (HD 705), and fawn production was great in the area with more than 90 fawns per 100 does on average. Yearling recruitment was below average in central Carter County but was the best observed in 10 years in southern Carter County. I suspect last year’s drought reduced recruitment in the central portion of the county where more marginal habitats are present.” Waltee observed similar increases across Powder River County (southern HD 704). “Populations are rebounding nicely in the southern portion of the region,” said Waltee. “I recommend hunters come to this part of the region to hunt antelope this fall. Hunter success rates measured at the Broadus check ctation have equaled 72% each of the past two years. I expect similar rates this year,” said Waltee.
Glendive area biologist Melissa Foster observed healthy increases across HD 703 and the northern portion of HD 705, with populations doubling on two trend areas and increasing by 60% on a third. “Although populations remain below long-term average, I’m definitely seeing more antelope on the ground,” said Foster. “I’m seeing good fawn production in adult does, but our fawn-to-doe numbers seem low because there are a lot of yearlings in the population.” said Foster. “I expect to see production increase next year when all of those yearlings produce their first fawns.” Hunters should expect to find more antelope in the eastern portion of the region than they have over the past couple of years. “There is certainly opportunity to hunt antelope but sportsmen who are unfamiliar with the area should be aware that it’s not our most productive antelope country. We don’t have the big expanses of sagebrush habitat that sustain antelope during winter like elsewhere in the region,” Foster said.
Populations in the northwestern portion of the region (HDs 700 and 701), which were impacted by a blue tongue outbreak in 2008 and most severely impacted by the 2010-11 winter remain in the toughest condition. “Although populations are increasing some, counts remain 75% below long-term average and are the lowest I have observed in more than 30 years,” said Hildebrand. “There remains a large percentage of does that aren’t producing fawns. That will slow recovery across the area. There still are antelope and the buck-to-doe ratio (55:100) is near long-term average, but more productive hunting will be found as you progress south in Region 7.”
Those interested in learning more about antelope populations or hunting opportunities in Region 7 should contact the regional office at (406)234-0900 or specific area wildlife biologists.
(Report by Montana FWP; Cover Photo: anchoroutfitting.com)