BILLINGS — Fresh snow on the Beartooth Front and balmy conditions elsewhere in south central Montana over the weekend did little to change hunter effort or the number of animals harvested during the 2016 general big-game hunting season.
With just one week left in this year’s general season, the deer harvest counted at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ three regional check stations remained lower than average, but better than a year ago and trending upward. The elk harvest has slowed from the 2015 season, but remains above the long-term average.
Here are some details from each of the check stations:
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Big Timber check station over the weekend was the highest since 2012 and above the long-term average. But the deer harvest was down from a year ago and well below the long-term average.
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 139 hunters over the weekend, up from 108 last year and an average of 130. Those hunters checked 15 white-tailed deer, down from 19 a year ago, and 34 mule deer, down from 41 during the same weekend in 2015. Hunters checked 11 elk, down from 14 last year but still well above the long-term average of seven.
Of those who stopped at Big Timber, 43 percent had harvested game, well below the 68 percent last year and an average of 61 percent over the years.
Balmy weather continued to influence hunting success, with light winds and temperatures in the 40s making tracking difficult and keeping animals mostly out of sight.
For the year so far, the number of hunters who have stopped at Big Timber is 15 percent above average. The white-tailed deer harvest is slightly below average while the mule deer harvest is slightly higher that the long-term average. The elk harvest measured at Big Timber is about half that of last, but still above the long-term average for the first five weekends of the 2016 general season.
With the general big game season entering its final week, Paugh said, hunters are shooting more antlerless deer than on previous weekends.
Ten inches of new snow last week improved hunting conditions along the Beartooth Front over the weekend, but the number of hunters and the number of white-tailed deer and elk continued to lag.
FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart checked 191 hunters at Columbus over the weekend, down from 228 a year ago and a long-term average of 217. Of those who stopped, 38 percent had harvested game, up two percentage points from the same weekend in 2015, but still well below the long-term average of 50 percent.
This past weekend, hunters who stopped at Columbus had harvested 31 white-tailed deer, down from 36 during the same weekend in 2015. The mule deer harvest was identical to last year’s at 37 animals. Four elk were counted at Columbus, half of last year’s number but identical to the long-term average for the fifth weekend of the general season.
For the first five weekends of the year, hunter traffic through the Columbus check station is down 10 percent from last year and seven percent from the long-term average. Only 110 white-tailed deer have been checked at Columbus so far – the second lowest harvest since 2006. The white-tailed deer harvest this year is 18 percent below the long-term average and 43 percent below the peak in 2008. The mule deer harvest measured at Columbus is running 14 percent below last year and 43 percent below average. The elk harvest, meanwhile, is running 40 percent below last year, but still 40 percent above the long-term average.
With the rut in full swing, Stewart said, hunters were able to harvest several six- to nine-year-old bucks of both deer species.
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Lavina check station over the weekend – as well as the number of deer checked – was up from the same weekend in 2015. But the elk harvest was off substantially from a year ago and the percentage of hunters with harvested animals was slightly lower.
FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor counted 241 hunters over the weekend at Lavina, up from 217 during the fifth weekend of the general season in 2015. Those hunters had 21 white-tailed deer, up from 16 a year ago, and 34 mule deer, up from 26 in 2015. Only four elk came through the check station over the weekend, down from 13 a year ago. Of the hunters who stopped, 24 percent had harvested an animal, down just one percentage point from 2015.
For the first five weekends of the 2016 season, the number of hunters checked at Lavina is six percent below the long-term average. The mule deer harvest is nine percent below average so far this year while the white-tailed deer harvest is off by 21 percent. With the rut in full swing, however, the ratio of bucks to antlerless animals has changed, with the buck harvest up 31 percent from a year ago.
The elk harvest reported at Lavina is two percent below the long-term average so far this year with bulls up 26 percent from average. Antlerless elk make up 31 percent fewer harvested elk than average.
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 weekend stats from FWP’s three south central Montana check stations over the weekend.