GREAT FALLS – In terms of both hunter numbers as well as harvest statistics, the general big season of 2021 resulted in one of the slowest hunting seasons in recent memory, due in large part to very mild weather conditions during nearly the entire season, with almost no precipitation and well above average temperatures.
A total of 2,546 successful and unsuccessful hunters were checked at the Augusta Biological Check Station during the season, representing a 31% drop from the 10-year average, and also represents the lowest total number of hunters in approximately 20 years. Despite the low numbers of hunters, the overall harvest success (total successful deer/elk hunters per total hunters checked) painted a slightly brighter picture with 19% success compared to the recent average of 23% success.
The overall big game harvest was the lowest recorded since at least 1983 according to check station records, showing a decline of approximately 45% in total harvest numbers. A total of 497 big game animals passed through the check station (includes elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, antelope, mountain lion and mountain goat), compared to the 10-year average of 885 and 20-year average of 910 animals.
The check station operated by FWP along Main Street in Augusta is the only biological check station in Region 4, and was operated during the general season for approximately 16 hours a day, seven days per week. Biological check stations are intended primarily for biologists to gather statistical information and trends about animals and hunters.
White-tailed deer harvest was consistently below average all season. The overall harvest of 198 animals was the lowest for at least the last 24 years, at 35% and 33% below the 10- and 20-year averages, respectively, and only about half of last year’s number. Bucks comprised approximately 60% of the harvest. Approximately three-quarters of the white-tailed deer harvest came out of hunting districts 422, 425 and 444.
Similar to white-tailed deer, the mule deer harvest for 2021 was also well below average at 172 animals, which is 29% below the 10-year average, and 44% below 20-year average. The mule deer harvest was the lowest recorded for this check station for at least the last 24 years. As is typically seen, a high percentage of the mule deer harvest consisted of antlered bucks with this year’s buck harvest comprising 88% of the total number of mule deer. Harvest was generally consistent over the course of the season, and the general distribution of harvested animals was consistent across the entire area, although hunting district 425 had the highest number of mule deer harvested among hunting districts in this area.
The total elk harvest of 107 animals was 66% and 63% below the 10- and 20-year averages, respectively, and 41% below last year’s harvest. Bulls made up 58% of the total harvest. Elk harvest success this year was generally slow through the duration of the entire season.
Total ‘Sun River elk’ harvest (from HDs 424, 425 & 442) passing through the check station amounted to 72 elk (41 bulls, 31 antlerless). The HD 442 quota (of 50 elk) finished exactly at 50 elk harvested (28 bulls, 22 antlerless), compared to 62 last year and 86 the year before. This quota was met on November 24, but given the lateness of the season and generally mild conditions correlated with low elk hunting success, the antlerless component of the season remained valid until the season closed (no additional elk were checked during the remaining days). The HD 424 quota of 10 elk finished with 9 bulls and 4 antlerless harvested and was closed beginning November 10.
A total of only 5 antlerless elk were checked out of HD 425 (Sun River WMA and adjacent lands), and four of the five HD 425 either-sex elk license holders were successful. Unlike last year, the reduced success of antlerless elk harvest in this HD was due again to the mild conditions and lack of migration of most of this herd from their backcountry fall range towards winter range (HD 425 – Sun River WMA). It was estimated that there were less than 200 head of elk present in HD 425 (Sun River WMA and adjacent private lands) by the end of the season.
HD 422 elk harvest was also well below average at approximately 40% of recent average harvest numbers (21 bulls, 13 antlerless elk).
All of the eight either-sex bighorn sheep hunters were successful in sheep HD’s 421 – 424. Average age (estimated by horn growth rings) of the rams taken on these licenses was 6.5 years old.
No black bears were checked at the check station but a total of 31 have been harvested from the Rocky Mountain Front by the end of the season. No wolves were checked at the check station either, but a total of 4 have been checked in wolf management unit 400 area thus far this season. There were an additional 10 antelope, 1 mountain lion, 1 mountain goat and various game birds checked throughout the season as well.