Elk, Deer and Antelope Hunting Forecast Broken Down by Region
By angelamontana

Posted: September 23, 2013

ELK:

For elk hunters think snow and more snow. Montana’s general, five-week long, elk hunting season opens Oct. 26.

Montana’s elk populations are in good shape—even as predation by wolves has contributed to some depressed elk populations in parts of western and southwestern Montana. Once again this season, Montana hunters will pursue elk under some very favorable regulations but, as ever, the weather will play a big part in hunter success. With some good old fashioned cold and snow it could be a banner year for elk.

Even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, remember Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for elk with just a general hunting license.

Depending on the hunting district regulations hunters can pursue brow-tined bull elk, spike bull elk, either-sex elk, or antlerless elk. Check out FWP’s general license “cheat sheet” online at fwp.mt.gov. Click “General License Cheat Sheet” for details on all of Montana’s general license fall hunting seasons, regulations, and specific season dates by hunting district.

For more information on elk hunting in Montana, visit FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov, click “Hunting” then click Hunting Guide.

Here’s a regional rundown on what elk hunters can expect this season.

Region 1—Northwestern Montana

Elk numbers remain stable and elk hunters should find populations similar to what they have seen for the past few years. Spring surveys across the region showed good numbers with calf recruitment slightly below average but better than it was in 2008 and 2009. Elk numbers in the backcountry districts, hunting districts 150 and 151, have been stable since 2008, and calf recruitment among elk that winter in the South Fork of the Flathead has been gradually increasing for the past five years. Elk numbers in the lower Clark Fork area, the region’s best elk producer, have been stable with good calf and bull numbers seen during spring surveys.

Region 2—Western Montana

Elk numbers are generally above the long-term average but the distribution and trend of elk populations raises concerns for the future. Calf production and survival is low in several districts along the border with Idaho and adjoining the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas, where opportunities to hunt antlerless elk are sharply reduced. A special permit is required to hunt bull elk in hunting districts 250 and 270 (Upper Bitterroot) to allow bull numbers to rebound. Elk numbers generally remain high on private lands located east of Missoula, but calf survival was low.

Region 3—Southwestern Montana

Region wide, hunters will likely see roughly the same amount of elk they did last year in southwestern Montana. Overall elk numbers, however, are slightly increasing. As with last year, weather will play a big role in harvest success. The areas seeing highest numbers remain the area around Dillon, the Pioneer Mountains, and the Shields Valley and Helena area—although access may be more difficult in the Shields Valley and Helena areas. Elsewhere, the elk population in the Elkhorns appears stable, while the Upper Gallatin and Paradise Valley are starting to see some stabilization. Meanwhile, the number of elk in the Gravelly Range remains about the same as last year.

Region 4—Central Montana

Elk populations remain robust. The biggest challenge for hunters, whether along the Rocky Mountain Front, central Montana’s island mountain ranges, or in the Missouri River Breaks continues to be finding access.

Regions 5 — South Central Montana

Elk populations are healthy, growing and at historically high levels. The numbers, however, won’t always mean hunter success. In areas where hunter access is good, elk numbers are low. In most areas where public hunter access is limited, elk numbers are well above FWP’s elk management objectives.

Region 6—Northeastern Montana

Elk numbers are at or above management objectives in most hunting districts. All elk hunting in the Bears Paw Mountains and the Missouri River Breaks is by special permits awarded via the annual drawing. Elk in these areas are most often found in core-habitat areas a mile or more from active roads and other human activity. Hunters should note that elk densities are very low in the general-season hunting area north of U.S. Highway 2.

Region 7—Southeastern Montana

While not typically a hot spot destination, outside of the Missouri Breaks, elk here are primarily found on private land. While elk populations are above management objectives in all hunting districts, public hunting access is limited.

DEER:

This season deer hunters in Montana will find another a mix of hunting opportunities across the state when the general season opens Oct. 26.

On the upside, FWP wildlife biologists are reporting better fawn production and survival in many areas. Like other big game hunting, a nice cold front with plenty of snow should lead to some good hunting this season. On the downside, reports of another spotty outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease—a fatal virus in deer that’s caused by biting insects—are coming in from across Montana.

Even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, remember Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for deer with just a general hunting license.

Depending on the hunting district regulations hunters can pursue antlered mule deer bucks, either-sex mule deer, antlered white-tailed deer, either-sex white-tailed deer. Check out FWP’s general license “cheat sheet” online at fwp.mt.gov. Click “General License Cheat Sheet” for details on all of Montana’s general license fall hunting seasons, regulations, and specific season dates by hunting district.

For more information on elk hunting in Montana, visit FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov, click “Hunting” then click Hunting Guide.

For more information on Montana’s five-week long general deer hunting season, visit FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov, click “Hunting” then click Hunting Guide.

Here’s a regional rundown on what deer hunters can expect this season.

Region 1—Northwestern Montana

Following two good winters with good fawn recruitment, white-tailed deer numbers in northwest Montana are generally recovering nicely from a recent population low in 2009. In parts of the region, particularly the far northwest and the North Fork of the Flathead, deer numbers will likely still be below normal. Hunters should find a lot of yearling and two-year old bucks this fall, and older bucks five years old and older, while not as plentiful as during 2008-2010, should still make up about 10-15 percent of the buck harvest. Mule deer populations remain low and hunters should not expect to find the type of mule deer hunting they enjoyed a generation ago. But the 2013 spring survey in the Fisher River, one of Montana’s better mule deer areas, showed good numbers and strong fawn recruitment, hopefully indicating some recovery in mule deer populations.

Region 2—Western Montana

White-tailed deer and mule deer are common but numbers generally are below historic averages. FWP has restricted hunting opportunities for antlerless deer to limit any further declines and speed population increases. Hunting for white-tailed bucks should be improving overall. Hunting for mule deer bucks is by permit-only in several hunting districts.

Region 3—Southwestern Montana

Mule deer populations are stable to slightly decreasing and still down from long term averages. Hunting for mule deer bucks is by permit-only in several hunting districts.

White-tailed deer populations, found mostly in river bottoms, are stable. The area remains fortunate not to see major die-offs from EHD as did other populations in central and eastern Montana.

Region 4—Central Montana

Mule deer populations are mostly stable and white-tailed deer numbers continue to increase. Some whitetail populations around Great Falls and north, however, have been hit by EHD, which may impact their numbers. Also, while it’s heartening to see mule deer numbers in some mountain ranges continue to rebuild, their numbers are still below average.

Region 5 — South Central Montana

Mule deer populations north of the Yellowstone River are on the upswing and approaching historical averages, reversing a decade-long trend. In the mountainous areas, particularly south of the Yellowstone River, a decline in mule deer numbers continues, prompting restrictive seasons in many hunting districts.

White-tailed deer living in the prairie environments north of U.S. Highway 12 have been in slow decline for a number of years, a trend that surveys continue to confirm. In the mountains south of the Yellowstone River, including along the Beartooth Front, populations are near average and growing. The population trends seem to parallel the prevalence of EHD, a fatal natural virus with symptoms similar to blue tongue. The biting midges that spread the disease do not live at higher elevations, in areas where white-tailed deer are doing best.

Region 6—Northeastern Montana

Effects on mule deer from the winter of 2010-11 are still being seen with regional numbers 20 percent below average, but mule deer numbers are starting to rebound in most areas. Buck ratios are also slightly below average with fewer older-age-class bucks due to winter mortality of older bucks in 2010-11. Doe licenses in most areas remain similar to 2012 and still well below levels prior to the winter of 2010-11.

White-tailed deer numbers in the Milk River Valley east of Malta to Nashua and in the Missouri River bottomlands below Fort Peck Dam were heavily impacted by an EHD outbreak in 2011. In those areas, numbers remain well below the long-term average, but are starting to rebound. In the Malta area numbers are slightly below average this year. An EHD outbreak has been confirmed this summer west of Harlem in the western portion of the region, so whitetail numbers will be significantly lower in this area. In the northeastern corner, numbers are near average in prairie habitats, but are still down in the Missouri River bottoms from the 2011 EHD outbreak.

Region 7—Southeastern Montana

Mule deer numbers are still more than 32 percent below the long term average due to the severe winter of 2010-11 that resulted in significant winter-kill of adults and fawns. Overwinter survival last year was high, and fawn recruitment this spring—up to 53 yearlings per 100 adults—increased relative to the previous year. That good news, however, was dampened by reduced fawning rates due to nutritional stress in does after the extreme winter of 2010-11. Drought conditions the summer of 2012 continued to impact deer nutrition, but forage and precipitation levels have been exceptional so far in 2013. Trend area surveys indicate that mule deer populations are up 11 percent from 2012 and deer populations are expected to continue a gradual climb. Hunters may have better opportunity in the southern portion of the region.

White-tailed deer populations are currently 7 percent below the 10-year average. The reduction in white-tailed deer numbers, however, is not all bad. Wildlife biologists note that whitetail numbers prior to the EHD outbreak in 2012 were too high and fewer deer on the landscape will allow habitat to recover along with deer numbers. Forage and precipitation levels have been exceptional so far in 2013. White-tailed deer can recover relatively rapidly from declines, and with double the fawn recruitment rates of last spring, it appears this process has already begun. Wildlife biologists tallied an average of 57 yearlings per 100 adults in 2013 trend surveys. Hunters who do their homework by scouting and visiting with private landowners should have success locating good areas to hunt whitetails.

Antelope:

Even as populations begin a slow rebound, hunters in Montana will have to work hard to bag an antelope again this season in many areas.

Montana’s antelope archery season will close Oct. 11 and the general rifle season for antelope will run Oct. 12-Nov. 10.

For more information on antelope hunting in Montana, visit FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov, click “Hunting” then click Hunting Guide.

Here’s a regional rundown on what antelope hunters can expect this year.

Region 2—Western Montana

Pronghorn distribution is centered in the Deer Lodge area and few licenses are issued to conserve this island population.

Region 3—Southwestern Montana

Across the region the population is stable, so hunters should see antelope numbers about the same as, or a little below, those of last year. In some areas–like the Shields Valley–it looks as if numbers are down slightly and that’s reflected in reduced doe licenses allotted this year.

Region 4—Central Montana

Antelope numbers are still mostly down and recovering from recent harsh winters. For hunters this has been reflected in FWP issuing fewer doe-fawn tags over the past couple of years.

Regions 5 — South Central Montana

Antelope continue to appear in historically low numbers throughout the region, including fewer fawns than in past years. Fertility and reproduction have been a concern since an outbreak of blue tongue virus decimated much of the herd in 2008. The disease, which is spread by biting midges, has surfaced again this fall in districts east of Billings. Population trends are reflected in fewer tags issued this year.

Region 6—Northeastern Montana

All hunting districts will again see low license numbers because of lingering impacts from the recent severe winters. Overall, populations are lower than long-term averages, and fawn production also remains below average in most areas. Decreased harvest quotas are expected to persist for at least several more years as pronghorn populations recover.

Region 7—Southeastern Montana

Antelope populations are recovering but remain well below long term averages. While there is a promising 21 percent increase from 2012, it’s still 50 percent below long term average and 66 percent below the 10 year peak count that occurred in 2006. Populations are rebounding nicely in the southern portion of the region, but seem to be struggling in the northern portion. Hunter success rates measured at the Broadus Check Station have equaled 72 percent each of the past two years and similar rates are expected again this year. FWP recommends that hunters head to the southern portion of the region to hunt antelope this fall.

(Report by Montana FWP)