Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists have completed their 2015 winter and spring aerial surveys of deer populations across Region 6 in northeastern Montana. The surveys indicate a continuing increase in numbers for mule deer, and mostly unchanging populations of whitetail deer across the region.
For mule deer, 11 trend areas in Region 6 are typically examined each year from the air. The winter “post-season survey” was completed in January, and the “spring survey” was completed in late March and April. While total deer counts tend to be variable, FWP Biologist Scott Thompson of Maltasaid the 2015 surveys indicate mule deer are above average. “The trend still shows an ongoing, gradual recovery across the region since the high winter mortality in 2010-2011,” Thompson said.
The post-hunting-season surveys showed the region-wide mule deer population at 20 percent above average, and 50 percent above the 2014 surveys. The spring surveys showed region-wide populations at 13 percent above average, and 28 percent above the 2014 survey.
While regional numbers indicate above average mule deer levels overall, differences are seen across the region and in isolated areas as well. According to Thompson, mule deer trend area numbers in the eastern half of the region (Glasgow area and east) are at or above the average. The western half of the region (Malta and Havre area), however, is at or below average. This same trend was seen in the deer fawn-to-adult ratios that are also conducted during the spring survey.
“Fawn to adult ratio is an indicator of over-winter survival as well as new recruitment into the population,” Thompson said. “The 2015 survey showed 55 fawns to 100 adults across the region, which is slightly above the average of 53 fawns to 100 adults. The eastern half of Region 6 saw the higher number of fawns to adults, with 63 fawns to 100 adults, while the western half was at 42 fawns to 100 adults, indicating a slower-growing mule deer population.”
“Figures taken from our deer surveys are only one factor in deer management recommendations,” Thompson further explained. “Season-setting and quota-setting decisions made by the Fish & Wildlife Commission also consider prior year’s harvest, weather and habitat factors, as well as additional input gathered from landowners, hunters, the general public and other agencies.”
Another pressing factor in managing deer populations is the threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) that is moving further south in Alberta and Saskatchewan toward the Montana border. Last winter, FWP initiated a mule deer telemetry study north of Chinook in Hunting District 600 to gather data on the movement of deer between the U.S. and Canada.
For 2015, most Region 6 hunting districts will be managed under the standard regulation for mule deer, which includes either-sex for a general deer license (A-tag), but no additional doe/B-licenses. “The exception to this are hunting districts that were trailing behind in mule deer recovery, according to our surveys,” Thompson said. “These include hunting districts 600, 611, 621, and 622, which will remain as a mule deer buck only for a general deer license, with no doe licenses.” In 2014, all of Montana, including Region 6, restricted mule deer hunting to bucks only.
In regards to whitetails, Thompson said surveys have been completed in six areas across Region 6. Due to more uniform habitat, the whitetail surveys tend to look at deer density, as opposed to total numbers, for trends. This year’s surveys show that whitetail populations are approximately 47 percent below average, which is an average of six deer per square mile in the trend areas. This is nearly the same as the 2014 survey. “Densities in the eastern section of the region are 41 percent below average, while the western portion of the region is 46 percent below the average,” Thompson said.
A large peak in the Region 6 whitetail population was observed between 2008 and 2010, when numbers were observed to be 25 percent above the average. At the time, whitetail densities were as high as 40 – 50 deer per square mile in some areas. “This was an unsustainable level that was causing problems for landowners and also degrading habitat conditions,” Thompson said. “EHD outbreaks and other factors trimmed those numbers back considerably. Nearly all of the Milk River and Missouri River bottoms have experienced at least one, if not two, EHD die-offs in the last three years.” According to past records, current levels of whitetail are similar to what was experienced in the late 1980s.
With whitetail numbers still relatively low, and in accordance with recent Fish and Wildlife Commission rule-setting, no antlerless “B” licenses will be available to hunters anywhere in Region 6 this fall. All whitetail hunting in Region 6 will continue to be either-sex on a general deer license.
(Report via Montana FWP)