Slightly slower and much warmer than usual end to big game season in west-central Montana
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: November 29, 2021

MISSOULA – The 2021 general big game hunting season closed Sunday, Nov. 28, with the four west-central Montana wildlife check stations reporting overall hunter activity and harvest totals down just slightly from last season, despite extra mild November weather.

In the six weekends of the season, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks operated wildlife check stations in four locations around west-central Montana, where biologists recorded 10,216 hunter stops and a harvest of 192 elk, 109 mule deer and 513 white-tailed deer.  This compares to 10,717 hunter stops, 235 elk, 90 mule deer and 540 white-tailed deer in the 2020 season.

Meanwhile, snow accumulations, even in the region’s high elevations, lagged far behind average, and unseasonably warm air temperatures dominated, even topping out in the low 60s on the last few days of the season.

Mild weather particularly impacts elk harvest, prompting elk to tend to stay in higher elevations and inaccessible areas, and making it much more difficult for hunters to track animals without snow.

Accordingly, elk harvest lagged region-wide this season.

As usual, the hunter check station near Darby was the regional leader in elk harvest with 133 elk checked, which was 15.6 percent below the five-year average for the station.  White-tailed deer harvest has increased at Darby in recent years, and ended with 86 whitetails checked, up 15 percent from the five-year average.  FWP checked 47 mule deer at Darby this year, up 20 percent from the five-year average.

As typical, most of the white-tailed deer harvest for the region was reported through the check station near Bonner.  The station saw 333 whitetails this season, down 15 percent from the five-year average.  Elk harvest and mule deer harvest reported through the Bonner station was considerably below the five-year average.

At the check station near Anaconda, final season tallies show 29 elk, 15 mule deer and 18 white-tailed deer in 2021, all lower than 2019 and 2017, when the check station was previously operated in every weekend of the hunting season.  The one exception was for mule deer in 2017, which totaled 10 compared with 15 this year.

Fish Creek Check Station is a bellwether for white-tailed deer harvest on public land and accounted for 76 whitetails this year, down from 88 last year.  Elk harvest of two and a mule deer harvest of 15 are on par with last year.

Check stations only account for a small percentage of total harvest across the region, but because the stations have been in operation consistently for many years, they monitor important early harvest trends and are a key way to gather biological information on wildlife health and age.

“These check stations give us an early indication of whether we’re meeting our harvest goals, especially for elk,” said Mike Thompson, FWP Missoula-based wildlife manager.  “Right now, we’re developing initial proposals to the Fish and Wildlife Commission for the next two hunting seasons, and the check station data is one important piece that we consider.”

The general season closed on Nov. 28, but lower than prescribed elk harvest and mild weather led to an extended elk season for some hunters in certain west-central Montana hunting districts through January 15, 2022.  This season extension is only for those that already hold certain unfilled special Elk B Licenses, and no licenses are for sale now. Find out more at fwp.mt.gov/news/allnews.

“We hope those Elk B license holders will find more elk during the season extension, with a goal to decrease wildlife damage on private agricultural lands where needed and to bring population numbers closer to objective,” said Mike Thompson, FWP Missoula-based wildlife manager.

Additionally, Montana’s new muzzleloader heritage hunting season runs Dec. 11-19, 2021. Any unused deer or elk license or permit that is valid on the last day of the general season remains valid during the muzzleloader heritage season, which has specific regulations. Find out more online: fwp.mt.gov.