Warm temperatures and light winds made for a comfortable and, in many cases, successful start to the general big-game hunting season in south central Montana. After six weeks of archery hunting, Montana’s general rifle season for deer and elk opened Saturday, Oct. 24, and will run for more than five weeks through the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Throughout south central Montana, the number of hunters who stopped at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ four check stations was up from the same weekend in 2014 and the percentage of hunters with harvested game was up overall.
Here are some details from the check stations:
A record 534 hunters stopped at FWP’s Lavina check station over the weekend, but just 14 percent of hunters had harvested game, which is about half of the long-term average. Over the past 22 years, an average of 406 hunters stopped at Lavina during the opening weekend of big-game season and 28 percent had animals to check.
Wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor said hunters reported seeing good numbers of deer and antelope, particularly more than in the past few years. She checked eight white-tailed deer – twice as many as the same weekend in 2014 but well below the average of 34 animals. Taylor checked 45 mule deer, which is far more than the 16 checked on the same weekend last year and slightly above the long-term average of 41.
The elk harvest remained a bright spot at the Lavina check station with 21 animals checked over the weekend. While it was fewer than the 37 elk checked in 2014, it was 67 percent above the long-term average of 13.
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Columbus check station was down from the past two years, but the percentage of hunter with game inched up on the strength of the elk and mule deer harvests.
Wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart said hunters who stopped at Columbus reported seeing more mule deer than in recent years, but few of them were mature bucks. On the positive side, mule deer seem to be growing antlers well this year with even young bucks displaying exceptionally large antlers.
Stewart checked 212 hunters over the opening weekend of general rifle season, down from 235 last year but up from the long-term average of 203. Hunters stopped at Columbus with 12 white-tailed deer – half of the long-term average – and 28 mule deer – well below the long-term average of 45.
The elk harvest was the largest ever recorded at Columbus with 18 animals checked – seven more than the same weekend in 2014 and more than triple the average of five. But hunters reported that most of the elk they saw were on private land where access is severely restricted.
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Big Timber check station and the percentage of hunters with harvested game were up from last year’s general hunting season opening weekend. Of the 282 hunters who stopped, 35 percent had animals. In 2014, 34 percent of the 253 hunters had harvested game. Over the long term an average of 44 percent of hunters had game during the rifle season opening weekend.
Wildlife biologist Justin Paugh said the highlight of the weekend was the elk harvest, with a record 22 elk checked – 14 of which were mature bulls 5X5 or larger. Last year he checked 10 elk during the opening weekend. Hunters also brought in 17 white-tailed deer, up from 12 in 2014, and 33 mule deer, down slightly from 35 last year. Antelope hunters checked 28 animals, a harvest identical to the same weekend in 2014.
Hunters who stopped at the Big Timber check station said they saw more deer – especially mule deer – than in recent years.
The number of hunters who stopped at the Laurel check station was at a 15-year low with 123 people checking in over the weekend. That is 10 hunters lower than the same weekend last year and half of the number during the peak years of 2003 and 2010. However, 26 percent of hunters had harvested game compared to 21 percent last year.
FWP wildlife research specialist Jay Watson said hunters reported seeing a good number of does and fawns, but few bucks. Deer harvest was up slightly, however, from last year’s historic low. Hunters had nine white-tailed deer – up from six in 2014 – and 18 mule deer – up from 18 last year.
Upland bird and waterfowl hunters reported seeing good numbers of birds.
Hunters are reminded that they must stop at any check station they pass while hunting, whether or not they have harvested game. Check stations primarily are intended for biologists to gather statistical information about animals and hunters.