FWP News: Spring deer, elk surveys show mixed results
By angelamontana

Posted: June 27, 2024

Areas of some increase, but still areas of decline or stable numbers

Some areas are reducing antlerless B licenses to grow herds

HELENA – Biologists conducting spring deer and elk surveys found some areas with improved herd growth and some areas with lower recruitment due to poor habitat conditions and disease.

During the spring season, FWP wildlife staff get a pulse on deer and elk numbers by conducting aerial spring trend surveys or green-up flights across the state. These flights occur in the same areas year after year so biologist can understand population trends. During the flights, staff count the total number of deer and elk they see and classify fawns/calves and adults to determine recruitment rates. Fawns/calves counted during spring surveys have survived their first winter and are recruited into the population. The fawn/calf count also provides a critical measure for population – the ratio of young to adults. The data gathered from these surveys are then used to adjust any antlerless B licenses prior to the drawing.

Long-term datasets for deer and elk let FWP determine if populations are increasing, decreasing or remaining stable and adjust antlerless B licenses as needed.

For antlerless B licenses for both elk and deer, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approves a quota range for each hunting district, or in some cases a region. FWP adjusts the B license quota within that range as necessary to protect herd numbers.

Additionally, adjustments to season structure to address declines in herd numbers can also be done through the normal biennial season setting process, which took place last summer and fall. The Fish and Wildlife Commission approved deerand elk regulations, including quota ranges, in December.

Watch video: Mule Deer Surveys 2024

Video screenshot

Here is a rundown by area for spring counts and license quota adjustments:

Northwest Montana – Region 1


What we saw: In this area of the state, aerial surveys are difficult because the tree canopy is dense. We base adjustments to licenses on antlered deer harvest. In hunting district (HD) 124, white-tailed buck harvest has declined in recent years.

What we did: In response to declining white-tailed buck harvests, FWP is reducing the number of white-tailed antlerless B licenses from 50 to 25 in HD 124.

Why we did it: Due to the reduced level of antlered buck harvest and desire to grow this herd, we are reducing the number of B licenses.

The results we are expecting: We expect increased doe survival, allowing the deerpopulation to grow.


What we saw: The total number of elk counted during the 2024 spring surveys was 330, resulting in a three-year average of 339 (2022, 2023, 2024).

What we did: Reduced the number of antlerless B licenses from 50 to 25.

Why we did it: This change will reduce harvest on female elk and help increase elk numbers toward the population goal identified in the 2023 Elk Plan, which is a three-year average count between 360 and 510.

The result we are expecting: By reducing female harvest we expect to increase cow elk survival.

Western Montana – Region 2

Spring monitoring surveys were normal and FWP is making no license quota adjustments for the 2024 hunting season.

Southwest Montana – Region 3


What we saw: Overall, mule deer populations exhibit regional variability, with some areas showing declines and poor recruitment due to harsh winter conditions, while others demonstrate robust populations and good fawn survival due to mild winters and favorable conditions. Observed deer were in good body condition, suggesting a healthy population outlook. There was one primary exception – an aerial survey of mule deerin HD 380 (Elkhorns) revealed a concerning decline in observed numbers. There was a 29 percent decrease from last year and 59 percent below the long-term spring average.

What we did: Proposed a reduction in the HD 380-02 mule deer B license from 100 to 75.

Why we did it: To stabilize and encourage population growth.

The results we are expecting: We expect increased recruitment rates and population growth to be measured in future surveys.


What we saw: Overall, elk counts in most districts are at or above management objectives, with high calf to cow ratios signaling good reproductive success. However, bull to cow ratios are generally low, potentially due to survey conditions rather than actual population deficits. The overall health and growth of elk populations across the surveyed districts are positive, reflecting a well-managed environment that supports elk sustainability and growth. In HD 380, the total count observed was 1,387 elk, although it is believed that 200 to 300 elk were missed, putting the estimated population between 1,587 and 1,687, below the management goal of 1,700 to 2,300 elk. Notably, there was a significant movement of elk between HD 380 and HD 390, affecting counts. Calf ratios and yearling bull numbers were lower than average, likely due to the previous harsh winter. The bulls per 100 cows ratio met the management goal despite a decline from last year.

What we did: Reduced Elk B Licenses from 175 to 125 in HD 380-01, and reduced Elk B Licenses from 100 to 50. Increased 394-00 Elk B Licenses in HDs 318 and 335 from 300 to 400.

Why we did it: To support population growth in HD 380 because of low calf recruitment. In HDs 318 and 335, the population is robust and can support the increased harvest opportunity.

The results we are expecting: In HD 380, we are expecting the reduced harvest of cows to generate increased calf recruitment and population growth in future years to meet management objectives. In HDs 318 and 335, we are expecting the increased cow harvest to stabilize the growth of the population to within management objectives.

Central Montana – Region 4

Mule deer

What we saw: Mule deer populations have gradually increased in HD 405 despite moderate to liberal numbers of Deer B Licenses being issued. Spring surveys this year revealed 1,428 mule deer in the trend area, which is almost 100 percent above objective. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was detected in the hunting district. In much of the rest of the region, mule deer are at or below long-term average numbers.

What we did: Increased Mule Deer B Licenses in HD 405 from 500 to 750.

Why we did it: The population is above objective in HD 405, and CWD has been detected in the hunting district.

The results we are expecting: We expect to see an increase in harvest and a slow decrease in population. When population reductions occur, B licenses will be reduced. Reducing the population to objective levels will limit the chances of CWD spreading to other districts.


Spring surveys were relatively normal across the region. Adjustments for HD 410 were done through the biennial season setting process and approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission last December.

South-central Montana – Region 5

Mule deer

What we saw: In the southern hunting districts, mule deer counts are well below the long-term average but have been stable for the past five years. Fawn to adult ratios ranged from 20 fawns to 100 adults to 44 fawns to 100 adults, which is below the long-term average but consistent compared to recent years. Higher counts of mule deer were recorded in the central hunting districts. While still below the long-term average, counts were higher compared to 2023. Fawn to adult ratios ranged from 42 fawns to 100 adults to 62 fawns to 100 adults. Mule deer counts in the northern hunting districts are still below long-term average but stable and trending higher. Fawn to adult ratios are also trending higher.

What we did: We did not propose any changes to Mule Deer B Licenses this year.

Why we did it: Mule deer counts this year were higher to stable in these hunting districts. In 2023, antlerless opportunity for mule deer was removed from the general license for all hunting districts. The antlerless mule deer licenses for most of the hunting districts range between zero and 150 allowing some opportunity for antlerless mule deer harvest and the ability to address game damage conflicts with hunter harvest. HD 575 recorded four new positive CWD samples. Decreasing deer densities is a proactive CWD management strategy. In HD 575, 500 antlerless mule deer licenses are available through the drawing process in an effort to decrease mule deer densities.

The results we are expecting: We expect the current antlerless license availability and harvest of mule deer to maintain stable numbers or slightly increase numbers of mule deer in most hunting districts. In hunting districts with CWD presence, we expect to slowly decrease deerdensities in an effort to slow the spread of CWD.

White-tailed deer

What we saw: Last year’s white-tailed deer counts along the Beartooth front were low likely due to late winter weather.  Th The counts for the western portion of 525 were higher compared to last year. That ratio has not exceeded 35 fawns to 100 adults since 2016. Whitetail counts for the central and northern hunting districts the region were higher than last year and are trending close to the long-term averages

What we did: We did not propose any changes to White-tailed B Licenses this year.

Why we did it: Region 5 white-tailed antlerless licenses were decreased from 5,200 to 4,500 in 2023. This was done in response to lower fawn recruitment and lower total counts of white-tailed deer across most of the region. Whitetail counts across most of the region are now stable except for areas along the Beartooth front. Increasing whitetail numbers to resemble long-term averages is a goal, and by maintaining the lowered quota for a few years, we hope to reach that goal region wide.

The results we are expecting: We expect to slowly increase the numbers of white-tailed deer to long-term average levels with the antlerless licenses available and expected harvest success.


What we saw: Elk counts across Region 5 are stable to slightly higher.

What we did: No changes were proposed for antlerless elk licenses.

Why we did it: Antlerless harvest using a general license is allowed, and unlimited antlerless elk licenses are available for the Region 5 HDs with elk populations that have been trending higher.

The results we are expecting: Overtime we are expecting elk numbers to stabilize with increased antlerless elk harvest.

Northeast Montana – Region 6

Mule deer

What we saw: Total mule deer numbers on post-season surveys were 21 percent below average, and spring surveys were 16 percent below average. Both represent a significant decrease from both the 2023 surveys and the historic high population observed in 2021. Fawn to doe ratios improved in 2024 to 59 fawns to 100 does, which is 11 percent above average and 41 percent higher than observed in 2023.

What we did: We reduced Antlerless Mule Deer B License quota levels by 3,375 (54 percent) across the region, from 6,200 in 2023 to 2,825 in 2024.

Why we did it:  Much of the region is managing antlered harvest within standard management objectives but has restricted Mule Deer B Licenses for antlerless mule deer at levels comparable to the 43 percent of the 10-year average. In other words, the number of antlerless licenses are quite low in comparison with historical numbers.


The results we are expecting:  We expect an estimated 1,158 antlerless mule deer harvested with these licenses. In addition to a reduction in antlerless mule deer harvest, we also expect mule deer populations to respond positively to improved habitat conditions and improved fawn recruitment.


What we saw: We observed 974 total elk numbers during the 2024 biennial elk survey, which is 39 percent below the lower population objective, and the four-year population average (1,133) is 29 percent below objective. Antlerless elk harvest success rate for B licenses in these hunting districts averages 13 percent over the past five years.

What we did:  We reduced Elk B License quota levels by 550 licenses (69 percent) in these HDs 620, 621, and 622.s, from 800 in 2023 to 250 in 2024.

Why we did it: We made these adjustments to move elk numbers toward the population objectives in the 2023 Elk Plan for these hunting districts (1600-2400). Furthermore, the estimated harvest success rate of 13 percent is below the stated objective of a harvest success rate of at least 25 percent.

The results we are expecting: We expect to reduce antlerless elk harvest, increase cow elk survival and subsequently increase the total elk population as evidenced by the number of elk observed on aerial surveys.

Eastern Montana – Region 7

Mule deer

What we saw: The total number of mule deerobserved during the 2024 spring surveys increased by 20 percent compared to numbers observed in 2023. However, mule deer numbers observed during 2024 spring surveys are still approximately 40 percent below long-term average. Fawn to adult ratios showed improvement and increased from 48 fawns to 100 adults observed in 2023 to 57 fawns to 100 adults in 2024, which is currently at long-term average.

What we did: Maintained the 1,000 antlerless B licenses.

Why we did it: Region 7 is using conservative management objectives because recruitment and population indicators remain at low levels, although both recruitment and population size seem to be increasing this year.

The result we are expecting: By maintaining antlerless B licenses at the low end of the quota range, we are anticipating some minor harvest that will provide some opportunity while also allowing the population to continue to respond positively to more favorable habitat conditions and strong recruitment numbers.

White-tailed deer

What we saw: White-tailed deer numbers observed on the Yellowstone River this spring were 59 percent below long-term average, but poor observation conditions may have contributed to the low numbers. Additionally, in the deertrend areas in the uplands where mule deer and white-tailed deer numbers are surveyed, the trends areas were approximately 45 percent below long-term average. The estimated white-tailed buck harvest for the region was only 8 percent below the long-term average and buck harvest is expected to track with overall population numbers and fluctuations.

What we did: Reduced the number of 007-00 Antlerless B Licenses from 8,500 to 6,000.

Why we did it: Recently, there have been a few bad years of epizootic hemmorhagic disease (EHD) outbreaks with following reductions in observed white-tailed deer in our surveys showing below-average numbers. In other portions of the region where there are strong deer numbers, we have reduced the number of available licenses to slightly reduce harvest knowing this license has a low harvest success estimated at 24 percent.

The results we are expecting: By reducing the number of licenses, we anticipate a slight reduction in harvest while also allowing for harvest opportunity where numbers are higher. The winter was mild, and substantial spring moisture has improved habitat conditions. We expect white-tailed deer numbers to respond positively to improved habitat conditions.

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