2020 SE MT big game hunting forecast
By angelamontana

Posted: September 8, 2020

Southeast Montana experienced another summer with good rainfall, but conditions are rapidly drying out and fire restrictions are being implemented. The past couple of summers the region has received good rainfall followed by mild winters, creating favorable conditions for wildlife.

Rifle deer hunters should expect to spend time glassing this season, since high vegetation offers better concealment.

Aerial surveys of deer populations in southeast Montana indicate that both mule deer and white-tailed deer remain above long-term average numbers.

“Abundant precipitation last year made for good forage conditions and deer going into winter in good body condition,” said Wildlife Biologist Melissa Foster. “The winter was mild for southeast Montana, so deer had enough ‘gas in the tank’ to make it through to spring green-up.”

FWP received no reports of widespread winterkills of deer.

“Mule deer are looking good,” Foster said, “Numbers are about 15 percent above last year and 33 percent above long-term average.”

Foster determines long-term average by tracing survey data back to the 1996-97 season and harvest figures back to 1976.

Surveys show mule deer population density in southeast Montana has been increasing since about 2012, when deer numbers began to rebound from a crash following back-to-back bitter winters. In 2016, deer reached the highest density recorded in the past three decades.

The recruitment rate for mule deer fawns is also solid, climbing steadily since 2010.

“This spring we saw a recruitment of 61 fawns per 100 adults,” Foster said. “Similarly, mule deer buck harvest is 17 percent above long-term average.”

The spring surveys conducted by Region 7’s four area biologists indicated buck-to-doe ratios remain at a strong 37 bucks per 100 does.

“We’ve had good precipitation again this year, although the summer has been hotter and drier than the last couple years, but still mule deer look to be in good shape with respect to fawn production and survival,” she said. “Deer should again be going into the hunting season and winter in good body condition.”

It is a balancing act to keep deer numbers at a level that provides opportunity but doesn’t exceed the land’s carrying capacity. High deer numbers can mean inadequate winter browse and thermal cover, and harsh winters can compound this effect.

Whitetail populations are also about average.

“Whitetails counts were overall 11 percent above last year, but trend areas in different parts of the region had mixed results,” Foster said. “Whitetails in core river bottom habitat were generally well above long-term average, whereas whitetails in upland agricultural/brushy habitats were right at long-term average or a little bit below long-term average. Buck harvest was 5 percent above long-term average last fall. Recruitment is still good, averaging 53 fawns per 100 adults.”

“All in all, I’d say whitetail numbers are about average for our neck of the woods, and as is typical for whitetails, numbers are booming in some spots and down in others, on a very localized scale,” she said. “Buck-to-doe ratios for whitetail are at 34 bucks per 100 does.”

Archery antelope hunters targeting water holes should expect fewer encounters since there are more options for critters to water.

“Antelope populations are variable across southeastern Montana,” according to Wildlife Biologist Ryan DeVore. “Herds in central and eastern Montana were hit hard by harsh winters in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The rate of recovery since then has been mixed in southeastern Montana.

Antelope numbers in the southern half of the region (primarily HDs 704 and 705) continue to be strong. During summer surveys, biologists observed over eight antelope per square mile in the very southeast corner of the state, which transitioned to approximately three to four antelope per square mile in the more northerly portions of HD 705, and fewer than two antelope per square mile throughout most of HDs 700, 701, 702 and 703.

The average buck ratio across Region 7 is 48 bucks per 100 does prior to this hunting season; however, buck ratios are variable, with better ratios in the southern portion of Region 7.

“For example, in the antelope trend area north of Hysham, 32 fawns per 100 does were observed, which is quite low,” said Wildlife Biologist Steve Atwood. “While that area has a strong complement of bucks in the population, unless a landowner in that specific area is requesting does harvested, I encourage hunters to seek out areas of the region with higher antelope numbers to fill doe licenses.

“The message here is that the extra windshield time to reach the southeast corner of Region 7 is absolutely worth it,” Foster said. “Hunters will find better densities and good public land opportunity in this remote portion of Region 7.”

FWP is offering similar numbers of Region 7 either-sex and doe/fawn rifle licenses as in the last few years. Region-wide, doe/fawn licenses (007-30) remain relatively low at 1,500, where they have been since 2016. In order to take advantage of better populations in the southern portion of Region 7, a newer opportunity is the 799-30 doe/fawn license, which is valid only in HDs 704 and 705. It is a second opportunity license that is available only to those hunters who drew a 007-20 and/or 007-30 antelope license (which are valid in all of Region 7). The 799-30 license is available one per hunter. Hunters may hold up to three antelope licenses in a given year, only one of which may be an either-sex license.

Again, those wishing to harvest an antelope in southeastern Montana, especially a doe or fawn, will have the greatest opportunity in the southern portion of the region.

Are you ready for hunting season? FWP can help. In addition to the following hunting forecast, FWP provides online information about hunting access, including our popular Block Management Program. Through the program, we coordinate with landowners to provide hunting access to more than 7 million acres of private land.

The interactive Hunt Planner map allows users to look at information for various species, including hunting districts and regulations. The hunt planner interactive map is a great way to access our block management information, so if you’re planning a hunt in a certain area, you can see if there are Block Management Areas available to expand your opportunity.

And, as always, you can contact our helpful staff at any of our regional offices around the state. They’re happy to help and can often get you pointed in the right direction with just a few simple tips.

Montana has some of the longest hunting seasons in the West, healthy herds of game and access to millions of acres of public land. However, hunters must be mindful of fire danger and of private landowners who are facing grass shortages, poor crop production and fatigue from monitoring for fire. Hunter harvest helps to reduce wildlife densities on a stressed landscape, and perhaps to help lessen winter depredation on haystacks or winter range.

Here are a few things hunters can do to show respect for private landowners during this dry season:

  • avoid vehicle use in areas with dry grass in the median
  • use caution when parking in areas with dry vegetation
  • report smoke or any signs of fire to local officials
  • carry a fire extinguisher or water to quickly snuff any potential fires.

These are good times for elk hunters, as Montana elk populations continue to be strong across most of the state. In many hunting districts, however, access to private lands can be difficult, which can affect hunting success given landownership patterns and distribution of elk.

Even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, remember that Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for elk with just a general hunting license.

In recent years, winter surveys indicated that elk populations in southeast Montana are continuing moderate growth and gradual expansion into unoccupied available habitat. FWP biologists typically observe strong calf recruitment and an excellent composition of bulls.

The Missouri Breaks (HD) and Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, 705) remain the two “core” elk populations. Outside of these areas, elk numbers across the region are low, distribution is spotty and elk are primarily found on private land, where public hunting access is limited.

Bull hunting is by permit only in HDs 700, 702, 704, 705 and the far western portion of 701. In HD 703 and in the rest of 701, hunters can pursue either-sex elk with a general license.

Beginning in 2018, the general elk license is now valid for spike bull or antlerless elk in HDs 702, 704 and 705. Previously, it was only valid for antlerless elk. This change provides more opportunity for sportsmen, reduces accidental harvest of spike bulls, and is not expected to have a measurable impact on bull numbers. See regulations to determine which lands the general elk license is valid for during the archery and general seasons.

Additional antlerless opportunities exist in the region via a general and/or B-license, and hunters are encouraged to review the regulations for more details on those opportunities. It is important for hunters to note that there are no elk shoulder seasons in any of the Region 7 hunting districts.