FWP News: 2022 Big Game Hunting Forecast
By angelamontana

Posted: August 29, 2022

Highlights

  • 2022 big game hunting forecast
  • 2022 upland game bird forecast
  • Hunters must expect to see bears
  • Reminder in the field this hunting season: Be a good steward of the land
  • Ask first to hunt on private land
  • Turn in poachers – call 1-800-TIP-MONT

2022 big game hunting forecast

HELENA – 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.

As a reminder, many hunting districts have changed. Don’t assume the HD you have hunted for the last several years is the same as it used to be. Double check the regulations to be sure.

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.

Destination: NORTHWEST MONTANA

Much of Northwest Montana experienced its third consecutive mild winter last year, benefiting white-tailed deer. Region 1 wildlife biologists generally observed good fawn recruitment this spring, ranging from 32 to 53 fawns per 100 adults during springs surveys. Overall whitetail numbers should be stable to increasing across the region, and hunters should see a fair number of bucks this fall due to three years of solid recruitment. Hunters holding a Libby CWD Management Zone Either-Sex White-Tailed Deer B License (199-20) are reminded that the license is only valid in the Libby CWD Management Zone, an area approximately 10 miles in radius around Libby, and only including parts of hunting districts (HDs) 100, 103 or 104. Maps of the Libby CWD Management Zone are available on the FWP website or at the Kalispell regional office.

Overall, mule deer numbers should be similar to last year with a continued influx of yearling bucks. Buck harvest in the region has been up from lows in 2017 in most hunting districts and biologist anticipate buck availability to be similar to last year. The percentage of four-point or greater bucks harvested was up in 2021, and it’s anticipated to be similar results this fall. Hunters are reminded to check the regulations as only antlered bucks (i.e. a deer with an antler or antlers at least 4 inches long as measured from the top of the skull) may be harvested in Region 1. Hunters need to be aware of some regulation changes passed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission this winter. Several districts were combined, and HD 101 now has a three-week general antlered buck mule deer season followed by a limited hunt where only permit holders may harvest a mule deer buck. There is also an area in HD 103 that requires a permit to hunt mule deer (HD 103-50). FWP finalized a mule deer study that included study areas in the Whitefish Range and Fisher River areas in Region 1. That report is available on the FWP web site. Visit https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/deer for more information.

In areas where surveys were conducted in spring of 2022, elk calf recruitment was similar to last year: relatively low compared to other parts of Montana, but consistent with the five-year average for areas where surveys were conducted in northwest Montana. Surveys conducted in HD 121 resulted in 1,497 elk counted with a calf recruitment rate of 24 calves per 100 cows. Overall, elk numbers should be similar to last year. Elk hunting is challenging in northwest Montana due to difficult terrain, heavily forested areas and densities relatively lower than other areas in Montana. Elk distribution will likely change from now through the archery season and again during general rifle season due to changes in vegetation, snow levels and hunting pressure. Hunters are advised to look for areas in the backcountry away from roads and high hunting pressure.

FWP began collaring moose in HDs 105 and 106 (and in two other study areas) in 2013. So far, the moose study has revealed that the Cabinet-Salish moose population is relatively stable although perhaps at lower overall numbers than historic highs. Similar trends in moose populations are likely in most of Region 1. Visit https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/moose for more information.

Big game check stations will be open in Region 1 on weekends during the general season — Highway 2 west of Kalispell; Highway 83 north of Swan Lake; Highway 200 on the west end of Thompson Falls; and Highway 93 near Olney. The Canoe Gulch check station near Libby is no longer in operation and has been replaced by the Libby CWD sampling station located on the south end of Libby (mile marker 35 on Hwy 2). Hunters are required to stop at game check stations but stopping at the Libby CWD sampling station is voluntary.

In recent years, FWP has detected CWD in white-tailed deer, mule deer and moose in the Libby area. Hunters need to be aware of the Libby CWD Management Zone (MZ) and its boundaries, which includes portions of HDs 100, 103 and 104. In 2020, a single CWD-positive whitetail buck was detected outside the MZ near the Thompson Chain of Lakes, and another CWD-positive was discovered outside the MZ in 2021. Region 1 is not a priority surveillance area for CWD this year. Testing for CWD is voluntary and hunters wishing to have harvested deer, elk and moose tested can submit samples themselves, visit the Libby CWD Sampling Station (Montana Department of Transportation shop on U.S. Highway 2, mile marker 35) on weekends during the general season or stop by the Region 1 Headquarters in Kalispell (490 North Meridian) during business hours Monday thru Friday. FWP staff’s ability to collect samples at game check stations will be limited and will occur only if it can be done safely and check stations are not busy. Hunters are encouraged to submit samples for testing, particularly in the Libby CWD MZ, so FWP can better assess the status of CWD in northwest Montana. Visit fwp.mt.gov/cwd for more information.

Only seven mountain goat tags are available within Region 1. Continued concerns about declining native goat herds necessitate this conservative allocation. Adult survival, particularly that of older-aged females, appears to drive population changes in mountain goats. Hunters are reminded that in Regions 1, 2 and 4 it is unlawful to take a female mountain goat accompanying a kid or a female in a group that contains one or more kids. Contact your local area biologist for details on mountain goat distribution and herd trajectories.

Overall, black bear numbers appear to be steady in northwest Montana. Due to a cool spring, huckleberry crops are patchy and late to ripen. If huckleberries are ripe and plentiful into September, bears may be widely dispersed. If huckleberry crops fail in large areas of northwestern Montana, black bears may move down into lower elevations and riparian areas where they are more accessible to hunters. Hunters should seek areas with a variety of other abundant food sources like serviceberries, chokecherries and mountain ash.

All successful bear hunters are required to report the harvest within 48 hours on the Harvest Reporting Line or through the MyFWP portal. Successful hunters in Region 1 are required to submit a premolar tooth, the sex of the harvested bear, bear management unit number and general location of the harvest within 10 days of harvest. This regulation applies only to Region 1. Hunters in other regions are required to submit the hide and skull to an FWP official within 10 days of harvest so FWP can collect a tooth for aging. The tooth will be sent to a laboratory where the age of the bear will be determined. FWP biologists use this age information, along with the sex of the bear, to manage bear populations in Montana. Currently hunting black bears with hounds is not legal in Region 1. If a bear hunter would like to know the age of the bear they harvested, they may look on MyFWP, or call their local area biologist. Results are available 9 to 12 months after the season’s close. For more information, visit fwp.mt.gov.

Northwest Montana has abundant wolf numbers and recent population estimates indicate a relatively stable wolf population. The 2021 harvest was down from the record harvest in 2020, but populations appear healthy. Wolf-related legislation and Fish and Wildlife Commission season changes may affect several aspects of the 2022 hunting and trapping seasons, and hunters are encouraged to closely check regulations and the FWP website for updates. Despite good numbers, wolves can be difficult to find, don’t always move as a pack and often move long distances. If hunters want to be successful, scouting and understanding wolf behavior is important. Visit https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/wolf for more information.

Northwest Montana has abundant mountain lion numbers. For the 2022 season, changes to the 2022 mountain lion regulations allow for purchase of a general lion license or an unlimited lion license until February 28, 2023. Hunters interested in pursuing mountain lions are encouraged to review the 2022 hunting regulations.

For any further questions, consult your local area biologist or the 2022 hunting regulations.

Destination: WESTERN MONTANA

White-tailed deer numbers have been on an upward trend in recent years after several hard winters suppressed recruitment between 2017-2019. Fawn production looks good again this summer after our third consecutive mild winter.

Opportunities to hunt mule deer are somewhat limited in western Montana. Many districts require a permit or B license, awarded through the statewide application process earlier this year. For 2022, unlimited permits have been removed and, in some of those districts, have been replaced with a shortened three-week season for bucks. Mule deer hunters should plan to go high in the mountains for the best opportunity at bigger bucks. Pay close attention to the regulations to make sure you are aware of season length and are properly licensed to hunt mule deer.

Three consecutive mild winters have contributed to normal overwinter elk calf survival, which should pay dividends for hunters on public lands this year and in the coming years.

Hunters are encouraged to read the regulations closely as there are multiple changes this year including some hunting district boundary changes in HDs 201/202/240/285 and elimination of HDs 203 and 283. Holders of limited bull permits are now restricted to hunting the district they hold their permit, with the exception of HD 270. Antlerless permits have been removed and replaced in some places with B licenses. There are still some early and late shoulder season opportunities but note that late season rifle opportunities end Jan. 8 this season.

There are only a few pronghorn hunting opportunities in western Montana. Hunting is limited to a few hunters who received a license through a special drawing.

For more information on deer, elk and pronghorn numbers and hunting opportunities in western Montana, check out past editions of the FWP Region 2 Wildlife Quarterly, available online at fwp.mt.gov/r2-wildlife-quarterlies.

Destination: SOUTHWEST MONTANA

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted several changes to this year’s hunting regulations. In some areas, hunting districts were combined or reconfigured to create fewer, larger districts. Hunters should read the regulations and become thoroughly familiar with these new boundaries and the regulations and license opportunities for them.

Last winter was fairly mild, which means good winter survival for big game in many areas. This spring also had good precipitation, producing quality forage across many areas, so big game animals will likely be in good body condition this year. However, fawn recruitment for deer and pronghorn in some areas is diminished this year due to lingering impacts of extreme drought conditions last year.

Fire danger remains high throughout the region, so be aware of fire restrictions, road and campground closures, and other regulations that may go into effect to reduce wildfires. Keep motorized vehicles on roads, and don’t park over dry fuels. Contact the applicable land management agency for updates on area closures or fire restrictions. Some Block Management areas are also closed or restricted due to fire danger. Visit fwp.mt.gov to see what rules are in place for Block Management properties.

White-tailed deer numbers remain strong in many parts of southwest Montana. They are typically associated with agricultural and private lands at lower elevations, where permission is required for access.

White-tailed deer continue to expand in hunting districts in the Dillon area, but harvest opportunity will remain almost exclusively on private lands. Hunters are encouraged to submit CWD samples from whitetails taken in this area, especially west of Interstate 15.

As a result of two seasons of CWD management hunts and CWD mortality, there’s been a substantial reduction—about 75 percent—in white-tailed deer numbers in the Ruby Valley between Sheridan and Twin Bridges. However, hunters should still find many opportunities to harvest whitetails, which will be found primarily on private lands and agricultural areas. Hunters will have to secure permission to hunt white-tailed deer in these areas. CWD continues to be present across the Ruby watershed.

Whitetail harvests were below average in the Madison area in 2021 and within average for the Bozeman area. Winter survival from last season should be good this year.

Mule deer recruitment in the Helena area was up this spring compared to last year with good winter survival, though overall numbers are still low.

Except for HD 392 where mule deer numbers seem to be increasing, mule deer numbers continue to be down to some extent on national forest lands in the Townsend district. Mule deer numbers on private land vary but may be overabundant in some localized areas, especially in agricultural areas.

Mule deer populations in HDs 319, 340, 350 and 370 appear to be on a downward trend. The regulation in HD 340 has changed from either-sex mule deer to buck mule deer only on the general license and a limited number of B licenses. HD 319 is now a limited draw permit for mule deer bucks, along with a limited number of B licenses; therefore, hunters cannot hunt mule deer in HD 319 unless they have either this permit or a B license specific to HD 319. Mule deer populations in HD 321 (formerly 321 and 334) appear steady although very low density. These populations use the Big Hole for summer range then migrate out of the valley by early November. The regulation for this district has been liberalized to allow either-sex mule deer harvest on the general deer license.

Mule deer populations in HD 331 have seen growth over the past decade. However, survey efforts suggest declines over the past two years. These declines coincide with low fawn recruitment, which was likely influenced by drought conditions. Mule deer numbers in HD 329 appear to be holding steady, with some growth over the past 10 years. HD 302 has seen strong buck-to-doe ratios but is likely experiencing lower fawn recruitment due to drought. HD 303 is a special permit area where overall population numbers appear to be growing over the past 10 years but with lower recent fawn recruitment. Permit holders should expect to see good buck numbers but finding a trophy buck may take considerable effort.

In the Sheridan area, a measurable reduction in mule deer was observed relative to last year. Mule deer numbers here have come down to a point where they were about four years ago. This was influenced primarily by extremely low fawn survival through last winter due to extreme drought over the past two years. It’s expected that hunters will observe fewer mule deer than they have over the past two years, but harvest opportunities will continue this season.

Most districts in the Bozeman area are within or above objective for mule deer, with good winter survival from last season.

Total mule deer numbers in the Livingston area observed during spring surveys were near 10- and 20-year averages in the Brackett Creek trend area (HD 393) but were below average in the Gardiner trend area (HD 313). As part of the regulation simplification effort during the 2022-2023 biennial season setting, the portion of HD 393 which allowed either-sex harvest with a general license was eliminated. That district now has an antlered buck regulation throughout.

Elk numbers are good across the Granite Butte Elk Management Unit, but elk distribution may be challenging for hunters. Distribution and hunter access to elk will depend mostly on weather.

Elk numbers in most parts of the Townsend area are generally good. Access to private lands that have elk during the hunting season is always a key consideration in HDs 390 and 391. Elk numbers in HD 380 may be down a little in some localized areas, but overall numbers continue to be within objective. While elk numbers in HD 392 have increased, they are still below objective.

Elk populations in HDs 319 (formerly 319 and 341), 321 (formerly 321 and 334), 340, 350 and 370 appear stable. Recruitment from last winter was decent, as were bull-to-cow ratios. Expect decent antler growth this year due to good growing conditions this spring. Elk should be in good weight and condition going into the fall after a wet spring and early summer. Remember that HDs 319 and 341 have been combined into one district, HD 319 and HDs 321 and 334 have also been combined into one district, HD 321. There have been several changes to elk regulations in the Butte area hunting districts so please check the regulations before heading afield.

Elk distribution in the Dillon area may look differently than it has in the past due to extreme climatic variation. Last year’s extreme drought likely contributed to changes in elk distribution as animals searched for areas with forage. In contrast, wet conditions this spring and good forage growth could mean wider distribution of elk and other wildlife this hunting season. As in other years, hunter success will be influenced by snowfall during the hunting season. Some areas of HD 331 were affected by the Alder Creek Fire last year, which means reduced forage and cover in some areas and enhanced forage in others. HD 331 is no longer open for harvesting antlerless elk on the general license on public land. Antlerless elk may be harvested on private land with a general license. In HD 329, elk numbers have been increasing over the past 10 years, and hunters there can likely expect strong elk numbers and bull-to-cow ratios. Elk counts have also been increasing in the Tendoy Elk Management Unit, where elk are expected to be widely distributed. However, elk congregating on private lands will remain a challenge for management.

In the Sheridan area, elk populations came down by about 10 percent relative to last year across HDs 320 and 322. That was likely the result of increased hunter harvest last fall. Calf recruitment here was observed to be a little lower than average, likely due to effects of drought, but populations are still above objective going into this hunting season. Hunters should expect to find about the same number of elk they observed last year. Elk movement and harvest is going to be influenced by the arrival of snow. Because the area is still over objective, hunters are encouraged to harvest antlerless elk for population management reasons.

Elk numbers vary by district in the Bozeman area. Elk counts are within objective in HD 304, and counts are strong in HDs 311 and 361. HDs 301, 309, 312 and 360 are above objective. Hunting district 310 is below objective, and antlerless elk harvest in this district is prohibited. Hunters should be aware of a HD boundary change affecting HDs 310 and 360 in the Big Sky area. See the hunting regulations or FWP’s Hunt Planner Map for more information.

Elk numbers remain robust throughout hunting districts in the Livingston area, though elk distribution may be challenging for hunters. Wildlife staff observed reduced calf recruitment in the northern Yellowstone herd (HD 313) last winter, though population impacts are still unclear. Bull ratios in HD 313 are similar to recent years but remain below historic levels. Shoulder seasons are in place for several districts in the Livingston area. Check the regulations to find out which licenses are valid for these hunts and where they occur. One change of note is that Rock Creek replaced Big Creek as the dividing line in HD 314. Check the regulations to see what license opportunities are valid north or south of Rock Creek.

Few either-sex antelope (pronghorn) licenses are allocated in the Helena area. But harvest results here have been decent in recent years.

Even though pronghorn numbers may be abundant in some localized areas, numbers continue to be well below desired numbers in the Townsend area hunting districts overall, and as such, license numbers are pretty minimal this year. Securing access to private lands (which may include Block Management Areas) that have pronghorn on them during the hunting season will provide the best opportunity for success.

Pronghorn populations in HDs 340 (formerly 341), 350 and 370 are stable to increasing. In HD 318, there are pronghorn does that are collared as part of an FWP study. If a hunter harvests one of these collared does, they are asked to please return the collar to FWP. The Butte area wildlife biologist’s name and phone number is on the collar. Hunters will receive information and a map of that doe’s locations and history after returning the collar.

Fawn recruitment appears to be very low in HDs 300 and 301, which is likely related to last year’s drought. HDs 300 and 329 has seen some gradual overall declines in pronghorn numbers. Finding a buck here may take extra effort, and pronghorn will likely be widely distributed with more forage available this year. HD 301 populations are holding steady but are also experiencing low fawn recruitment this year. Populations in HD 310 appear to be healthy. However, counts and harvest in this district were low last year. Drought may have forced some pronghorn to abandon the district. The proportion of pronghorn that have reestablished their use of this district is uncertain.

Total numbers of pronghorn have been good in the Sheridan area. FWP biologists have seen slight growth in the population over the past year, but they’ve also seen very low fawn production this summer due to extreme drought conditions over the past two years. Winter survival was good here with mild winter conditions last season. It’s expected that hunters will find a number of pronghorn similar to what they may have observed last year. They may see some groups of does without any fawns—a continuing short-term impact of drought. With this year’s precipitation and good growing season this year, fawn recruitment is expected to rebound next year.

Pronghorn numbers are above average in HD 360, and doe-fawn ratios have been high. However, in HD 311 pronghorn numbers are within average and fawn production was low.

Pronghorn numbers are down across most districts in the Livingston area, and license allocations were reduced across HDs 338, 339 and 317.

Destination: NORTH-CENTRAL MONTANA

As is often the case, hunters have both good news and bad news when it comes to the big game hunting outlook for 2022 in FWP’s Region 4, north central Montana.

While elk numbers are at all-time high levels with extra harvest opportunities in some areas, mule deer numbers generally still remain lower than in previous years. Mule deer in some mountain ranges experienced significant declines in the last 10 to 15 years, and although mule deer populations in prairie habitats are faring a bit better, drought conditions have hindered populations in some of the eastern areas of Region 4. White-tailed deer populations are considered strong, but pronghorn numbers are mixed, and in many areas, they have still not completely recovered from the tough winter of 2017/18.

Along the northern Rocky Mountain Front, biologist Ryan Rauscher reports that elk numbers are generally above their long-term average, with bull to cow ratios at or near average. In the Sweetgrass Hills, elk numbers remain well over objective, giving hunters opportunity to harvest antlerless elk.

The southern Rocky Mountain Front shows overall stability in elk numbers compared to recent years, according to area biologist Brent Lonner. Sun River elk remain near long-term average for the population with bull to cow numbers slightly above long-term average. Elk numbers southwest of Augusta and in the Birdtail Hills remain above long-term average, with extended (shoulder) seasons in place for both areas to help address high elk numbers.

In most cases, elk populations throughout the Little Belt, Castle and eastern Big Belt Mountains area are at the high end of the range observed in recent times. “Elk numbers in the western Little Belts and eastern Big Belts have increased the most, despite the liberal hunting regulations that have been in place there for some time,” said biologist Jay Kolbe.

Near Great Falls, biologist Jake Doggett says that elk are doing well in the Highwood Mountains and Devils Kitchen hunting districts, where numbers remain well above long-term averages. There was a record high elk count this year, including bulls, across HDs 445 and 455 this past March. Elk are very close to objective numbers in the Little Belts (old HD 413).

Across much of the Golden Triangle, mule deer populations remain above average overall with some increases in antlerless licenses. White-tailed deer numbers are increasing across much of Rauscher’s and Lonner’s areas as well, and in several of their hunting districts, they report that white-tailed deer numbers are strong and should provide good harvest opportunities for both bucks and antlerless deer. Hunters can expect deer distribution to be somewhat patchy because of the drought this year, and they will be concentrated in areas with good forage and cover.

Kolbe reports that although mule deer in the Little Belt, Castle and eastern Big Belt Mountains experienced significant declines 10 to 15 years ago, their numbers have been steadily increasing since then. “I’ve seen some very nice bucks come out of this area during the last several seasons,” said Jay Kolbe, FWP wildlife biologist based in white Sulphur Springs.

Mule deer numbers in the agricultural areas near Great Falls are doing well, but populations in the mountain/mountain foothill areas are still rebounding from lower numbers of the past few years. In some areas near the mountains, mule deer numbers are more than 25 percent below long-term average and the regulations changed to reflect this, so only mule deer bucks can be harvested there on the general deer license. White-tailed deer numbers remain strong and there should be great opportunities for hunters. Doggett suggests utilizing the available whitetail B licenses in the mountain foothill areas where the mule deer regulations switched to antlered buck only.

Pronghorn population numbers in the Golden Triangle are good. Near the Sweetgrass Hills, pronghorn have been well under long-term average in previous years but have recovered somewhat and are just slightly below average this year. The result is more opportunity with an increase in both either-sex and doe/fawn licenses. In the heart of the Golden Triangle district of HD 404, pronghorn numbers have been above average the past couple years. Increased hunter opportunity and drought have brought down pronghorn numbers and licenses have been reduced slightly this year, reflecting the lower numbers seen in summer surveys.

Pronghorn numbers in the greater Augusta area and locations near the Birdtail Hills continue to show stability in numbers, although slightly below long-term average observations. According to Lonner, July surveys showed near average buck numbers but below average fawn numbers. For that reason, among others, pronghorn licenses were reduced in HD 444 for the 2022 season.

Kolbe also reported that pronghorn populations are also doing well. “I saw around 60 fawns per 100 does during my pronghorn survey flights this summer, which is good fawn production,” he said.” Overall pronghorn numbers both north and south of the Little Belts (HDs 430 and 490) continue to recover from declines we saw following the harsh winters a few years ago.”

Surveys suggest that pronghorn across many of Doggett’s hunting districts are still recovering from the tough winters of 2017 and 2018 and also recent drought conditions. For the most part numbers are still below long-term averages. Fawn production seemed better in areas with more cropland, but buck to doe ratios were higher in the mountain foothill areas.

Destination: SOUTH-CENTRAL MONTANA

For most hunting districts in this region, elk numbers remain at or near all-time highs. However, the majority of elk occur on private lands were hunting access is typically quite restricted. Spring surveys for HDs 502, 515, 525, 535, 540, 575 and 580 indicated near-record numbers of elk in most of those areas.

Elk populations in HD 555 continue to suffer the lingering impacts of previous fires. Following last summer’s catastrophic Robertson Draw fire, many elk shifted distribution to adjacent hunting districts. While some elk have returned to their traditional summer/fall ranges, it remains unclear what elk numbers will be like during the upcoming hunting season. Best guess is that numbers may remain low until the later portion of general rifle season.

White-tailed deer spring surveys in HDs 502, 525, 555 and 575 showed a modest uptick in over-winter fawn survival in 2022, which should result in some improvement of whitetail numbers for the upcoming hunting season. For HD 580, spring surveys and 2021 harvest data indicate average whitetail numbers. Expect similar hunting to last year in this area.

In most of the northern portion of Region 5, spring surveys and 2021 harvest data indicate below-average numbers of white-tailed deer. Hunters in HDs 515, 535, and 540 can expect similar opportunities to last year in this area.

Mule deer numbers in the region continue to be at or near record lows, and hunters should expect to see fewer animals in the field this season.

In HDs 502, 525, 555, 575 and 580, spring surveys showed mule deer numbers in these districts were similar to the previous year. Those numbers were at or near 40-year lows. Hunting opportunity will be similar to last year, but much reduced from a few years back. Spring surveys for HDs 535 and 540 showed mule deer numbers in these districts were similar to the previous year and also well below the long-term average.

Pronghorn numbers in HD 506 are below average and very similar to last year. Buck-to-doe and fawn-to-doe ratios are well below average. In HD 556, overall pronghorn numbers remain well below long-term average, so this upcoming hunting season will be a bit more challenging than in previous years.

For the northern portion of Region 5 in HDs 516, 536, and 546, numbers are average to below average. Buck-to-doe ratios were better compared to last year, but fawn numbers remain below average across the area.

HD 576 pronghorn numbers are reasonably good, which will translate into good hunter success in 2022. Pronghorn numbers in HD 586 have been mostly stable over the past four years but remain about 25 percent below average. Buck-to-doe and fawn-to-doe ratios remain below average.

Spring pheasant counts were quite low this spring following last year’s drought. Expect poorer than average pheasant hunting.

Destination: NORTHEAST MONTANA

Elk surveys in the Missouri River Breaks in 2022 were 43 percent below the long-term average, from 1995 to 2022. The 2021 elk survey in the Bears Paw area was above the 2019 survey and over twice the 15-year average. Most elk hunting opportunities are allocated through limited permit or B License drawing in the region, except for HD 690, where general licenses are valid for antlerless elk during the general season. A few districts where elk habitat and numbers are very low and difficult to find offer either-sex harvest on a general license. Please see the current hunting regulations to learn more.

White-tailed deer densities saw a decline following another significant epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) that occurred mainly on the eastern portion of the region in the Culbertson area along the Missouri River.

“Scattered pockets of EHD were also observed along the Milk River from Glasgow to Malta and out on the prairie habitats in the eastern portion of the region,” added Williamson.

The 2022 survey showed white-tailed deer density averages of 7.3 deer-per-square mile across the deer trend areas, which is 31 percent below the long-term average of 10.6 deer-per-square mile.

Mule deer populations are above average across much of the region but vary depending on the hunting district. Overall, numbers during spring surveys showed the region-wide population at 31 percent above long-term average. Generally, mule deer populations remain above average in the eastern third of the region as well as the areas north of Highway 2.

According to Ryan Williamson, Outlook-area biologist, “The winter of 2021-2022 was generally mild and favorable for wintering deer. No significant mortality events were reported in the region for mule deer.” Williamson went on to say that the favorable winter, combined with already high deer numbers observed over the last few years, has led to numbers remaining above average across much of the region.

Obtaining antlerless deer B licenses

Antlerless whitetail B licenses will again be available for over-the-counter purchase, with a limit of four per hunter. These licenses are valid across all of Region 6 to allow hunters to use the license where whitetail numbers may be higher.

Antlerless mule deer B Licenses remain at high levels, and there may be surplus tags still available in some districts.

Please review the fwp.mt.gov website for the most up-to-date information on surplus licenses.

Note: hunters may possess a total of seven Deer B Licenses in any combination. Game damage and management deer B licenses do not count toward this total.

In general, pronghorn populations have been slowly increasing the past 10 years across the region from historic lows in 2011. While some survey areas have observed increased numbers and are at or above their long-term averages, there are still a few areas where pronghorn are still below their long-term average, mainly in the Havre area.

Total numbers have increased from last year, with populations near levels observed in 2020 (prior to the 2021 region-wide drought) and similar to population levels observed prior to the winter mortality in 2010-2011. Buck ratios are at average levels (46:100), and fawn ratios remain below average, likely due to drought conditions. Moderate numbers of pronghorn licenses were distributed through the drawing system, and those who have drawn licenses should have a good opportunity to harvest a pronghorn.

Destination: SOUTHEAST MONTANA

Conditions in much of southeast Montana are considerably better than last year at this time, when the landscape was ravaged by drought. Abundant spring/summer rainfall this year has resulted in rapid recovery of range plants, but abundant vegetation also means increased fire danger as grass dries out.

The Missouri Breaks (HD 700) and Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, 705) remain the two “core” elk populations in southeast Montana. Outside of these areas, elk numbers are generally low, but numbers have been increasing at a moderate rate, accompanied by a gradual expansion into previously unoccupied habitat.

FWP biologists typically observe strong calf recruitment and an excellent composition of bulls.

Branch-antlered bull hunting is by permit only in HDs 700, 702, 704, 705 and the far southwestern portion of HD 701. But even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, Region 7 offers opportunities to hunt elk with a general license. The general elk license is valid for spike bull or antlerless elk in HDs 702, 704 and 705 (but not valid on the Custer National Forest during the general rifle season).

Allowing spike bulls to be harvested increases opportunity for hunters and prevents accidental violations if spikes are mistaken for antlerless elk. While providing additional opportunity on a general elk license, spike bull harvest remains a small portion of the overall bull harvest and has not shown to have a measurable impact on the ratio of bulls to cows.

In HD 703 and the eastern three-quarters of HD 701, hunters can pursue any elk with a general license. However, hunters should be aware that elk are scarce in these districts; often highly transient or occurring in small, isolated pockets; and primarily found on private land. Hunter harvest surveys from 2021 suggest an estimated elk harvest of 41 in HD 703 and 132 in HD 701. Compare that to nearly 2,000 and 1,560 mule deer harvested in those districts, respectively. Hunter surveys indicate 498 elk taken in HD 700, and about 762 in the Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704 and 705).

HD 700 was surveyed in late December 2021, with excellent survey conditions and exceptional observability of the elk. In total, 1,379 elk were counted in the HD with a bull ratio of 28 bulls per 100 cows, and a calf ratio of 54 calves to 100 cows. These ratios are higher than those from the 2020 survey (15 bulls:100 cows and 41 calves:100 cows), but this is likely due to the exceptionally good survey conditions. Hunters should expect elk distribution to be similar to 2021, given the continuation of drought in most of this HD.

Although the 2021 drought has passed in much of the region (with Garfield County being the exception), its effect on southeastern Montana deer populations remains apparent.

Whitetail numbers remain variable depending on the area of the region. Drought in 2021 led to EHD outbreaks in many parts of the region. Most southeastern Montana counties experienced localized die-offs. The Yellowstone River corridor in southern Richland County experienced a more widespread outbreak, but nevertheless whitetail numbers remain good through much of the area. Northern Carter and southern Fallon counties were particularly hard hit by EHD, with a widespread outbreak that resulted in significant mortality. Whitetail numbers in this area are expected to take a couple of years to recover. Additionally, EHD impacted whitetails along the Powder River.

Overall, whitetail numbers observed on spring trend areas averaged 24 percent below 2021 numbers but 9 percent above long-term average. Buck harvest was 3 percent above long-term average last fall. Similar to mule deer, whitetail fawn recruitment this spring was below average at 44 fawns per 100 adults.

New this year, Region 7 changed the way antlerless whitetail licenses are allocated as part of a statewide effort to simplify hunting regulations. Antlerless whitetail licenses will now be allocated similar to antlerless mule deer licenses. Biologists will set quotas on an annual basis; the licenses will first be available through the drawing process (deadline: June 1 each year). Any surplus licenses first will be distributed through the surplus list (the deadline to sign up was Aug. 7, 2022), and finally, if leftover licenses remain, they will be sold over the counter on a first-come, first-served basis.

Mule deer numbers observed this year on the 14 spring trend areas were 36 percent below 2021 and 47 percent below the long-term average. Drought conditions reduced the quantity and quality of forage available to deer during spring and summer 2021.

The recruitment rate for mule deer fawns this spring was below average at 42 fawns per 100 adults, also a result of the drought. Nutritionally stressed does don’t produce as much milk for growing fawns, and many fawns didn’t gain enough weight their first summer to make it through the winter months.

In response to population declines, biologists in southeast Montana again reduced antlerless quotas, offering just 3,000 antlerless mule deer licenses for the 2022 season. Historically, these licenses had been selling out by the third week of the season, but this year there were very few left over after the draw and they were sold out soon after surpluses licenses were offered. Hunters will be unable to purchase additional antlerless mule deer licenses during the general rifle season this fall.

From about 2012-2020, mule deer numbers had been increasing in southeast Montana, a result of mild winters and good spring/summer moisture. The good news for hunters is that each good year for deer production and survival equals a solid year-class recruited into the population, so Region 7 currently has a good dispersion of age classes with a mix of young, middle-age and older animals. Buck-to-doe ratios remain good, averaging 39 bucks per 100 does in the region.

While as a whole mule deer numbers are down this year in Region 7, it is important to note that there are areas where numbers are strong. Some areas of the west-central and northeastern portions of the region may have better concentrations, whereas the southern third (which experienced severe drought in 2020 as well) and northwestern portion of the region were hit hardest.

Pronghorn populations in southeast Montana increased from last year and are 27 percent above the 10-year average. Results from the 2022 summer aerial surveys indicate pronghorn buck:doe:fawn ratios of 42:100:61; the 10-year average is 53:100:71. While the buck:doe ratio is below average, the overall number of bucks observed is 10 percent above the 10-year average.

With a healthy total number of bucks observed, Region 7 biologists moderately increased the number of regionwide, 007-20 either-sex licenses. Additionally, the second opportunity 799-30 doe/fawn license, valid only in HDs 704 and 705, was moderately increased due to strong populations across much of those districts. This license will be sold over the counter on a first-come, first-served basis, one per hunter, and is only available to those who hold a valid 007-20 and/or 007-30 pronghorn license.

Survey efforts indicate that pronghorn numbers are strongest in the southeastern portion of Region 7 and are not as robust in the northwestern portion of the region. Through public outreach and the 799-30 additional doe/fawn license (which is valid only in HDs 704 and 705), regional staff will encourage hunters to take advantage of the flexibility available to them via the regionwide licenses and focus their efforts in areas where pronghorn numbers are more robust (which will also relieve pressure where local populations are struggling).

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

2022 upland game bird forecast

Destination: NORTHWEST MONTANA

Pheasant hunting on the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area near Ronan and surrounding area could be challenging this year. Despite good grain production and some opportunistic moisture in the spring, brood survival appears to be relatively poor.

Mountain grouse: dusky, ruffed and Franklin’s. Bird numbers should be similar to last year. Much of Northwest Montana experienced a cool, wet spring which can negatively affect brood survival. Despite the spring conditions, overall numbers should be similar to last year and hunting should be good for all three species of mountain grouse.

Destination: WESTERN MONTANA

Upland game bird numbers in Region 2 are generally looking pretty good for the 2022 fall season. Another mild winter allowed for high winter survival of forest grouse and wild turkeys. Many dusky and ruffed grouse were detected during the spring breeding season. Timely moisture in the spring and early summer has provided quality habitat across the region. Grasses and forbs have grown high, which provide good cover and abundant insect forage for broods to eat. This has led to large brood sizes for all forest grouse and wild turkeys. This fall, FWP wants to be sure that bird hunters are aware that thanks to recent efforts to restore native sharp-tailed grouse to western Montana, it is possible you could encounter a sharp-tail grouse in western Montana and hunting is closed for this species west of the Continental Divide. Be extra careful when identifying birds.

Destination: SOUTHWEST MONTANA

Mountain and sage-grouse productivity should be decent this year since much of southwest Montana experienced cool, wet weather in June that produced good vegetation and insects but was not cold and snowy to the detriment of hatchlings as in the past three years. There will be wing barrels out in several locations throughout southwest Montana. Hunters are asked to deposit only one wing from each bird harvested into one of these barrels or with the Butte, Sheridan or Dillon wildlife biologists’ offices. Wings will be used to determine the age and sex of grouse to determine productivity for the year.

A 15-percent increase in sage-grouse population trends were observed in the Sheridan area this spring. This was the first time a year-over-year increase was seen for sage-grouse here in five years. Given the population trends and good vegetative production and cover, there’s a good chance the nest success of upland birds will be good this year, especially compared to the previous three or four years.

FWP biologists will be collecting wings from hunter-harvested sage-grouse, mountain grouse and gray partridge, also known as Hungarian partridge, in several areas of southwest Montana. Biologists will use these wings to identify birds by species and age class — juvenile or adult. This helps biologists monitor juvenile recruitment among game bird populations. Wing collection barrels are blue and will be in various locations during the sage-grouse hunting season, from Sept. 1 to 30. Hunters who come upon a wing collection barrel while traveling from a hunt are asked to put only one wing from each harvested bird into the barrel. Wings can also be turned into area wildlife biologists or game wardens.

Destination: NORTH-CENTRAL MONTANA

Upland game bird populations are highly dependent upon weather, and the past year has provided both good and bad weather conditions for pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in Region 4.

Based on spring lek surveys for sharp-tailed grouse and crow count surveys for pheasants, recruitment varied from poor to good depending on location. Overall, upland bird numbers are trending higher than 2021 but still remain below the long-term average across the region as populations are still recovering from the harsh winter of 2017/2018.

The past winter provided temperatures near average, but variable amounts of precipitation. While drought conditions statewide have shown some improvement, some areas of Region 4 still remain in the highest category of drought found anywhere in Montana, and bird numbers in these areas reflect that fact and remain very low.

Based on weather station data, spring temperatures tended to be below average, precipitation was near or slightly below average, and nesting habitat considered fair to good. Temperatures in June were near average with below-average precipitation, but in July and August, the summer turned hot and dry. Although there are areas where grass and vegetation still remain green and grasshoppers are abundant, the continued drought conditions are expected to cause habitat quality to decline further over the remaining weeks of summer.

Taking weather and habitat conditions into consideration, overall hunting success for upland birds is predicted to be below average, although still very dependent on hunter effort. Since habitat conditions in the area are quite variable, the key to a successful season for hunters will be finding the areas where the habitat is in the best condition and focusing their hunting efforts there.

When choosing a place to hunt, hunters should first consider their target species. Sharp-tailed grouse will be found in grasslands intermixed with farmland and foothills, where they tend to roost on the tops of hills and draws with grass and forb cover averaging shin height. On windy days, sharptails will generally stay on the leeward side of a hill, out of the wind.

Pheasants will generally be found closer to riparian areas and grain sources. Finding areas with grass higher than your shin, mixed with shrubs and small draws and near a food source (farmland/shrub berries) is a good place to start.

Gray partridge (also known as Hungarian partridge) thrive in all of the above habitat types but their populations are more susceptible to extreme weather. In general, large patches of grass and CRP and draws or fields with shrubby cover near farmland are good areas to start looking for gray partridge and other upland birds on the prairie.

Blue grouse, ruffed grouse and spruce grouse. Of the three, blue and ruffed grouse make up the majority of the mountain grouse population. There is habitat overlap with all three species but in general ruffed grouse tend to occupy riparian areas in the lower elevations of the mountains that also have a mixture of shrubs, aspens and conifers. Blue and spruce grouse tend to occupy areas with a combination of old and new growth conifers with low-lying berries in the higher elevations. Forest grouse populations are considered to be stable in the region.

Destination: SOUTH-CENTRAL MONTANA

Sage-grouse counts this spring showed numbers to be at a 10-year low. Anticipate poor sage-grouse hunting.

Sharptail numbers are likely to be similar to last year.

Gray partridge and chukar populations will also likely be similar to last year or maybe a little higher as a result of good spring moisture.

Mountain grouse numbers might be up a bit this year as a result of favorable spring moisture.

 To date, the turkey broods that have been documented are small, so a rebound from last year’s lower populations appears unlikely.

Destination: NORTHEAST MONTANA

Habitat conditions, spring adult populations and recent brood observations start out slightly above average in the eastern third of the region but decline to the west.

The western portion of the region remains in severe drought conditions for the second year in a row. This has negatively impacted vegetation throughout the season and has likely led to a decrease in nest and brood success of all species. The center of the region, Phillips and Valley counties, saw marginally improved conditions this hatching season and were briefly out of drought status in July. Bird populations in this area of the region are expected to be slightly below average. The eastern portions of the region all received better precipitation this year and habitat conditions steadily improved from early May through July. As a result, bird populations are expected to be stable in this area and similar to last year, around average or slightly above average.

A grasshopper outbreak has infested much of the region for the second year in a row. While precipitation has improved vegetation conditions in the eastern two-thirds of the region, grasshopper damage has impacted the quality of the cover again in many areas. However, these grasshoppers also provide a valuable food source for game bird chicks, so the overall impact to upland bird populations depends on the local area. From check station and wing barrel data, we observe that juveniles (birds hatched that year) typically comprise most of the birds harvested (60 to 80 percent depending on the species). Where drought conditions have persisted in the region, hunters will likely find lower juvenile numbers on the landscape and will have to cover more ground and seek out “good” habitat conditions to be successful.

Spring “crowing” surveys that measure the rooster pheasant populations in the eastern third of the region showed populations around average or slightly above average, with populations in the western third of the region well below average. The center of the region falls in between these two, with pheasant populations starting the year slightly below average.

Brood success will be low in areas hardest hit by the drought and improve eastward.  The areas that received good moisture throughout the early brood-rearing season in late June into July will have the greatest brood success and best pheasant numbers this fall.

In Region 6, gray partridge (also known as Hungarian partridge) populations are not monitored through any structured surveys, but harvest estimates show their populations do track with the other bird species in the region to some degree. Partridge harvest in 2021 was above average in the eastern portions of the region but 60 percent of average in the western portions of the region, which was still a significant improvement over the previous five years. Overall, partridge numbers this fall are likely to remain average to above average for the eastern half of the region, and below average for the western half of the region. Gray partridge is almost always the least numerous of our game birds in the region, and as a result, are unevenly distributed on the landscape. Even where numbers are good, hunters may need to try many areas of suitable cover to find coveys. The effort to find suitable cover may increase substantially in the drought stricken western portions of the region this year.

Based on spring survey data, sage-grouse populations are in decent shape in Region 6. In the central and western portion of the region, where sage-grouse habitat exists, adult numbers were slightly above average in Valley County, but below average in all areas to the west. While sage grouse appear to tolerate drought conditions somewhat better than our other game birds, the continued dry conditions, especially in the far-western portions of the region, may impact sage grouse production this year. Conditions in the center of the region may be more favorable and sage grouse numbers are likely to be similar to last year this fall. Core sage-grouse habitat primarily exists south of Highway 2 and is composed of mixed grass and Wyoming big sagebrush rangeland. Drought has likely impacted brood success, especially in areas lacking riparian areas. Hunters should expect to find better numbers of sage-grouse in areas containing some riparian habitat.

Grouse hunters headed to Region 6 will likely encounter sharptail populations similar to the fall of 2021. Adult spring surveys ranged from above average in the eastern half of the region to below average in the western half of the region. Due to the drought conditions, juvenile numbers will be down in the western areas and subsequently decrease overall numbers and harvest. In the eastern portions of the region, sharptail numbers are expected to be fair to good. Brood success in eastern areas appears to be good in areas that received precipitation in spring and early summer.

Destination: SOUTHEAST MONTANA

Multiple years of drought have taken a toll on bird numbers. While harvest in 2021 was around average, this year’s lek counts are down compared to 2021. Poor recruitment last year, little available habitat and some severe late snowstorms have had an effect on birds.

This year will be very similar to 2018. The area is coming out of a tough drought and has received moisture this year. The habitat looks great compared to prior years, which is good news. The bad news is that the low bird numbers, paired with great habitat and grasshoppers everywhere, are going to have what birds are out there spread pretty thinly across the landscape. This may give the illusion that numbers are worse than they actually are. With the conditions being so good, birds will be able to make a go of it just about anywhere and will not necessarily be in the typical places that hunters would find them on a “normal” year.

There are many areas within the region that experienced severe thunderstorms with torrential rains, hail and high winds. This kind of weather can have very adverse effects on nesting hens and young broods. Hunters should be prepared to be adaptable in the event that their favorite spot was the recipient of some of this weather.

The good thing about upland birds is that they have a high fecundity and are able to rebound very quickly if given adequate conditions.

Hunters must expect to see bears

Grizzly bears have the potential to be found anywhere in the western two-thirds of Montana (west of Billings), and their distribution is denser and more widespread than in previous years. Some areas with dense concentrations of grizzly bears are very accessible to hunters, especially during the archery season. Keep these precautions in mind when hunting in grizzly country:

  • Carry and know how to use bear spray. Keep it within easy reach and be prepared to use it immediately.
  • Stay alert, especially when hearing or visibility is limited. Watch for environmental indicators of recent bear activity. If there is abundant fresh sign of grizzly bears in the area, consider hunting elsewhere. Let other hunters know when bears and/or fresh sign are observed.
  • Travel and hunt in groups whenever possible. This can help you make casual noise to alert bears to your presence, and it may also increase your chances survival in the event of a bear attack.
  • Follow all food storage regulations. Contact the applicable land management agency (i.e. U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc.) to learn what food storage rules apply where you’re hunting.
  • Avoid carcass sites and concentrations of ravens and other scavengers.
  • Carry the equipment you need to process a carcass and get it out of the field as quickly as possible.
  • If you harvest an animal, remove it from the field as quickly as possible.

For more tips on staying safe in bear country, visit FWP’s Bear Aware web page.

What’s new for chronic wasting disease management for 2022

This year FWP will continue chronic wasting disease (CWD) surveillance in specific areas known as Priority Surveillance Areas in north-central, central, southwestern, and south-central Montana.

  • Carcass disposal requirements: Carcass parts, such as brain, eyes, spleen, lymph glands, and spinal cord material, should be left at the kill site when possible. If the animal is transported for taxidermy or meat processing, the brain and spinal tissue must be bagged and disposed of in a Class II landfill. A carcass may be transported within the state regardless of where it was harvested if the carcass parts are disposed of in a landfill after butchering and processing. Dumping carcasses is illegal, unethical, and can spread diseases, including chronic wasting disease. This requirement applies to all deer, elk, and moose carcasses wherever in the state they are harvested by hunters or as vehicle-killed salvage. Protect our herds: properly dispose of carcasses.
  • If you intend to use scents to either mask human odor or as an attractant for deer and elk, you should be aware there are regulations on which ones you can use. You are safest if you use artificial scents, but you can also use scents certified by the Responsible Hunting Scent Association. You can identify these with the DPP✓ or RtQUIC✓ labels on them.
  • Sample submission is voluntary throughout Montana. If hunters want their harvested animal sampled, they can submit samples themselves by following steps on the