BILLINGS — Hunters who took to the field in south central Montana over the weekend found deep crunchy snow in the mountains and muddy roads in the foot hills. But warm temperatures made for comfortable hunting – even with a stiff breeze in some quarters of the region – and the deer rut gave sportsmen increased opportunity.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologists experienced moderate to brisk traffic at their four south central Montana check stations during the fifth weekend of the 2017 season. They found that the number of deer checked region-wide continues to lag compared to the long-term average.
Here are some specifics from this past weekend at FWP’s south central Montana check stations:
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Columbus check station was below last year, but the deer harvest was up and the percentage of hunters with game was the second highest in the past decade.
FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart checked 182 hunters over the weekend, down from 191 during the same weekend in 2016 and well below the long-term average of 216. Those hunters checked 44 white-tailed deer – 13 higher than the same weekend a year ago and five more than the long-term average. The mule deer harvest of 43 reported over the weekend was six better than the same weekend in 2016 but 20 below the long-term average.
For the season to date, Stewart has checked 822 hunters at Columbus, down steeply from a long-term average of 995. Hunters have checked 138 white-tailed deer so far this season, four more than the long-term average. The mule deer harvest of 155 reported year-to-date at Columbus is well below the long-term average of 241. The elk harvest remains a bright spot with 41 checked so far this year at Columbus, nearly double the long-term average of 21.
The number of hunters as well as the deer harvest reported at FWP’s Lavina check station continues to lag from last year and the long-term average.
FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor checked 152 hunters during the past weekend – down from 241 during the fifth weekend of the 2016 season and a long-term average of 261. Those hunters checked 14 white-tailed deer – seven fewer than a year ago and well below the average of 25. The mule deer harvest counted at Lavina was down to 22 for the weekend from 34 checked last year and a long-term average of 40. The eight elk checked over the weekend at Lavina was double last year’s count, but below the long-term average of 11. Of those who checked in at Lavina, 29 percent had harvested game, exactly the same as the long-term average.
The number of hunters and deer harvested for all five weekends of the 2017 big-game season are on a decline. Taylor has checked 1,164 hunters this year, down from an average of 1,542. Hunters have checked 46 white-tailed deer, less than half of the long-term average of 124 for the year. The mule deer harvest of 122 animals is well below the average of 214 for the first five weeks of the season. The elk harvest remains a bright spot at Lavina with 79 checked so far, well ahead of the long-term average of 61.
Over the weekend, 505 hunters stopped at FWP’s Billings Heights check station and more than half of them had harvested game.
FWP wildlife biologist Megan O’Reilly checked 60 white-tailed deer, 174 mule deer and 28 elk Saturday and Sunday. This is the first year that FWP has operated the Billings Heights check station during the general big-game season, so there are no comparisons to previous years.
For the year to date, 2,035 hunters have stopped in at FWP’s Billings Heights check station and reported 102 white-tailed deer, 506 mule deer, 36 antelope and 161 elk for a harvest rate of 39 percent.
At FWP’s Big Timber check station, 128 hunters stopped over the weekend, which is down from 139 during the same weekend in 2016 and three fewer than the long-term average.
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 19 white-tailed deer, up from the 15 during the fifth weekend of the 2016 season but down sharply from the long-term average of 32. The mule-deer harvest remains strong at Big Timber, with 47 checked over the weekend – up from 34 a year ago and a long-term average of 40.
The elk harvest has slowed some at Big Timber with eight checked over the weekend, down three from the same period in 2016 and only one ahead of the long-term average.
Of those who stopped, 58 percent had harvested game, which is well above the 43 percent reported a year ago and only slightly behind the long-term average of 60 percent.
For the first five weekends of the season, 912 hunters have stopped at FWP’s Big Timber check station, well ahead of the long-term average of 771. The white-tailed deer harvest reported at Big Timber is 82 so far this year, down from an average of 112. The mule deer harvest reported at Big Timber continues to be strong with 197 checked this year, up from an average of 166. For the 2016 season, hunters have checked 84 elk compared to a long-term average of 38.
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.
This fall, FWP also is gathering tissue samples in south central Montana to test for the presence of chronic wasting disease, or CWD. CWD is a progressive, fatal disease affecting the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose. Biologists believe that early detection provides Montana with best chance of containing CWD.
Earlier this season, two samples collected south of Bridger tested positive for CWD. FWP is asking all hunters who harvest deer in hunting districts 510 and 502 to either stop at the Laurel check station during weekends or call the FWP Region 5 headquarters during the week to have samples tested. More information on CWD is available online at http://fwp.mt.gov/cwd.