BILLINGS — Widespread snow that accumulated to two feet in the high country kept many hunters at home over the weekend, leading a near-record low turnout at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks check stations in south central Montana.
The number of checked animals – particularly deer – reflected the fact that fewer hunters took to the field during the third weekend of the 2017 general big game season.
Here are some specifics from the five FWP check stations operated over the weekend in south central Montana:
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Columbus check station Saturday and Sunday was the second lowest on record for the third weekend of the general big-game season and 21 percent below last year. The number of checked white-tailed deer and elk were above last year while the mule deer count was down just one, making the percentage of hunter with game up sharply from 2016.
FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart said two feet of fresh snow along the Beartooth Front made hunter access difficult and kept many home for the weekend.
Stewart checked 139 hunters over the weekend, down from 175 on the same weekend in 2016 and below the long-term average of 195. Those hunters checked 16 white-tailed deer – up from 10 a year ago but below the long-term average of 23 – and 29 mule deer, down just one from a year ago but still well under the long-term average of 47. The elk harvest continues to be a bright spot with eight animals checked, up from six during the same weekend in 2016 the long-term average of three.
Forty percent of hunters who stopped at Columbus had harvested animals, well above last year’s 27 percent and one point above the long-term average of 39 percent.
Deep, new snow in the high country kept many hunters home and limited the deer harvest measured at FWP’s Big Timber check station during the past weekend.
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 103 hunters Saturday and Sunday – the third weekend of the 2017 general big-game season. That was 10 fewer than the same weekend in 2016 and well below the long-term average of 142.
Hunters checked seven white-tailed deer – down from 13 a year ago and a long-term average of 20. They also brought in 20 mule deer – down from 27 in 2016 and a long-term average of 29. Elk remained a bright spot at the Big Timber check station with 12 checked over the weekend – up from four a year ago and a long-term average of 6 for the third weekend of the season.
Of those who stopped at Big Timber, 46 percent had harvested game – the same as last year and down five percentage points from the long-term average.
Challenging snow conditions in the Little Belts and Castle mountains over the weekend slowed traffic at FWP’s Lavina check station.
FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor checked 146 hunters Saturday and Sunday – down from 209 during the same weekend in 2016. Those hunters checked seven white-tailed deer – down from 10 a year ago – and 12 mule deer, down from 28 in 2016. The elk harvest showed signs of slowing, with seven checked, down from nine in 2016.
For the year to date, the number of hunters who stopped at Lavina as well as the white-tailed deer and mule deer harvests all were the second lowest on record. So far 788 hunters have stopped – well below the long-term average of 963 during the first three weekends of the general big game season. Hunters have checked 20 white-tailed deer – down from an average of 68 – and 54 mule deer – down from 117 annually over the long term. The elk harvest remains bright, with 57 animals checked so far this year at Lavina, up from a long-term average of 37.
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Laurel check station over the weekend was up slightly from last year, but the deer harvest was down from the same weekend in 2016.
FWP wildlife research specialist Jay Watson checked 139 hunters Saturday and Sunday, up two from the previous year. They had nine white-tailed deer – down from 21 in 2016 – and 33 mule deer – down four from last year. During the same weekend in 2016, no hunters checked elk, but this year four came through the check station.
Of those who checked in at Laurel, 34 percent had harvested animals – down from 42 percent in 2016.
For the year so far, hunter and harvested deer numbers at FWP’s Laurel check station are down from the long-term average. So far this year, 358 hunters with 39 white-tailed deer and 55 mule deer have stopped. Over the long term, an average of 542 hunters with 53 white-tailed deer and 118 mule deer stop at Laurel during the first three weekends of the general big-game season. Hunters have checked five elk at Laurel this year compared to a long-term average of seven during the same weekends.
At FWP’s Billings Heights check station, 321 hunters stopped over the weekend with 19 white-tailed deer and 81 mule deer. FWP wildlife biologist Megan O”Reilly also checked 15 elk, three antelope and a number of birds. Of those who stopped, 37 percent had harvested game.
This is the first year that FWP has operated a general-season check station in Billings Heights, so there are no comparisons to last year and no long-term average statistics.
For the first three weekends of the general big-game season, 34 percent of those who stopped in Billings had harvested game. O’Reilly has checked 1,112 hunters with 33 white-tailed deer, 231 mule deer, 83 elk and 31 antelope.
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 to test for the presence of chronic wasting disease, or CWD. CWD is a progressive, fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of deer, elk and moose. It has not yet been discovered in Montana’s wild populations, but it has been detected in 21 other states and two Canadian provinces – some very near the border with Montana.
As the disease continues to expand, FWP officials believe it is only a matter of time before it is in Montana. Biologists believe that early detection provides Montana with best chance of containing CWD.