BILLINGS — The number of hunters who took to the field was up from last year and generally better than average for the opening weekend of the big-game rifle season in south central Montana.
Warm, breezy weather throughout the region made for comfortable hunting conditions, particularly as winds calmed down on Sunday. At three of the four south central Montana check stations operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks over the weekend, hunters numbered more than last year. In the case of the check station at Big Timber, a record number of hunters stopped with the most game since 2008.
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 318 hunters Saturday and Sunday, 41 percent of who had harvested game. That number was up from 282 last year, when 35 percent of hunters harvested game on the opening weekend.
The mule deer harvest reported at Big Timber nearly doubled from last year with 65 animals checked, up from 33 on the same weekend in 2015. While the number of elk checked was down from 22 last year to 15 over the opening weekend, it still is well ahead of the long-term average.
Hunters who stopped at Big Timber reported seeing more mule deer and antelope than in the past several years.
At Columbus, FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart checked 229 hunters over the weekend, up from 212 last year and 11 percent more than the long-term average of 203. Just 23 percent of those who stopped at Columbus had harvested game, well below the long-term average of 37 percent and down from 28 percent for the same weekend in 2015.
Hunters checked 24 mule deer – down from 28 in 2015 and 45 percent below the long-term average of 44. The white-tailed deer harvest reported at Columbus was near average and 50 percent above the long-term average.
The elk harvest reported at Columbus was near the long-term average but less than half of last year. Most elk observed by hunters were on private land where access is restricted.
At Lavina, FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor checked 451 hunters during the two-day opening weekend. That number was well below the 534 in 2015, but still 10 percent above the long-term average. Of the hunters who stopped 16 percent had harvested game, up from 14 percent in 2015 and well below the long-term average of 26 percent.
Just 13 white-tailed deer were checked at Lavina – which is more than last year but 79 percent below the long-term average. The number of antelope checked was 60 percent below average. Low numbers of permits issued for antelope and antlerless white-tailed deer contributed to the lagging harvest. Hunters checked 20 elk – down just one from the same weekend in 2015 but 55 percent above the long-term average.
At Laurel, FWP wildlife research specialist Jay Watson checked 131 hunters, up eight from the same weekend last year, but still below the long-term average. Of those who stopped at Laurel over the weekend, 28 percent had harvested game, up slightly from 2015, but still well below the long-term average.
Hunters reported seeing more game – particularly deer in general and adult bucks – than in the past few years. Waterfowl hunters reported good numbers of ducks and good success in the area.
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.
Here are some of the statistics from this past weekend: