Below is a news release from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
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, which provides hunting access to more than 7 million acres of private land.
FWP’s interactive Hunt Planner is a mapping tool that 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. If you’re planning a hunt in a certain region of the state, you can see if there are Block Management Areas available to expand your opportunity.
Remember, regulations may change a bit from year to year depending on hunting district. Double check the regulations to be sure.
FWP’s Hunter FAQ is another great resource to help you prepare to go out into the field.
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
Big game recruitment in northwest Montana varied after last winter, particularly for white-tailed deer. Snow conditions were highly variable with an early snow and hardpack conditions persisting through much of the winter.
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 The Canoe Gulch check station near Libby is no longer in operation and has been replaced by the Libby CWD sampling station located on the south end of Libby (mile marker 35 on Highway 2).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.
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 through 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/conservation/chronic-wasting-disease.
Calf survival in the Thompson Falls (HD 121) and Lost Trail (HD 103) areas was 31 and 33 calves per 100 cows, respectively, which is above long-term average. Calf recruitment in these areas was the highest observed since the early 2000s and the long-term average is 21 calves per 100 cows. If maintained, this ratio should result in a growing elk population. Calf survival in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area was 15 calves per 100 cows, which is up from previous surveys but still below the level indicative of an increasing population. Elk numbers should be similar in Region 1 to last year. Elk hunting is challenging in northwest Montana due to difficult terrain, heavily forested areas and densities relatively lower than some 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.
Region 1 wildlife biologists generally observed white-tail recruitment this spring, ranging from 17 to 45 fawns per 100 adults during spring 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. FWP expects deer numbers to decline in areas below 35 to 40 fawns per 100 adults, primarily in HDs 101, 110, 120 and 130, but be stable to increasing in the much of the rest of the region.
Numbers appeared to be stable to slightly increasing over the past two years with buck harvest increasing in the region since 2017. This spring, fawn recruitment in the Fisher River drainage produced 28 fawns per 100 adults, suggesting a slight downturn in population growth. Overall mule deer populations should be similar to last year. 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. The North Fisher area in HD 103 requires a permit to hunt mule deer (HD 103-50).
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 fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/moose for more information.
Northwest Montana experienced high black bear harvest in 2021 and 2022, exceeding 700 bears per year in Region 1. Overall, black bear numbers may be down somewhat in northwest Montana. Berry crops appear to be good in most areas and bears may be dispersed at the start of the black bear season. Hunters should seek areas with abundant food sources like huckleberries, serviceberries, chokecherries and mountain ash.
All successful bear hunters are required to report the harvest within 48 hours on the Harvest Reporting Line (1-877-FWP-WILD or 406-444-0356) 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.
Northwest Montana has abundant wolf numbers and recent population estimates indicate a slightly declining wolf population. The 2022 harvest was down from 2021, but populations appear healthy. Recently, the Fish and Wildlife Commission made a couple hunting and trapping season changes. Hunters and trappers are encouraged to closely check regulations and the FWP website for these changes. 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 fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/wolf for more information.
Northwest Montana has abundant mountain lion numbers. For the 2023 season, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved an increase harvest in efforts to reduce lion densities up to 40 percent. Overall, the general regulations didn’t change from 2022 and hunters are encouraged to review the 2023 mountain lion regulations to evaluate hunting opportunities.
For any further questions, consult your local area biologist or the 2023 hunting regulations.
Destination: WESTERN MONTANA
Following three consecutive mild winters, the 2022-2023 winter was a return to a colder and snowier season across the region. Although the winter was long, animals headed into the winter in good condition last fall, and coupled with the moderate snow levels, spring surveys showed that most populations remained relatively stable. An abnormally cool spring delayed green-up, however above average precipitation through June provided for good forage, which should have contributed to fast recovery of fat stores and good antler growth.
Dry conditions and wildfires are impacting some of the region heading into hunting season, and hunters should check fire restrictions and closures before heading into the field: www.mtfireinfo.org.
For more detailed information on antelope, deer and elk 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.
Hunting district boundary changed last year in HDs 201/202/240/285 in 2022. Also, for the second season, elk hunters with limited bull permits are restricted to hunting the district they hold their permit, with the exception of HD 270 in the southern Bitterroot.
For Blackfoot-area elk hunters, most elk herds are below, or near, the lower range of population objectives. Elsewhere in the region, most elk herds are at or above population objectives. Most districts offer brow-tined bull hunting opportunities on the general license except HDs 217, 250 and 282, which are on limited permits.
There are some early season antlerless hunting opportunities on private lands in several HDs in the Blackfoot, Upper Clark Fork and Bitterroot. Hunters that hold these licenses are encouraged to contact the local biologist to facilitate connecting with landowners experiencing game damage issues.
The migratory nature of many of the elk herds in the region means that where elk are found is largely weather dependent. In seasons with early snowfall, elk tend to move to lower elevations where they can be more accessible to hunters.
Opportunities to hunt mule deer are somewhat limited in western Montana. Some districts require a permit or B license, awarded through the statewide application process earlier this year. For the second season, several hunting districts allow mule deer buck harvest on the general license for the first three weeks of the general season only, so hunters are encouraged to read the regulations closely. The three-week season applies to HDs 204, 212, 213, 214, 215, 217, 240 and 292.
Overall, mule deer numbers are down from historic levels, but buck harvest has remained relatively stable in other districts. Spring surveys showed good recruitment of new deer to the population, despite the long winter, and hunters should expect conditions and success to be similar to 2022. Mule deer hunters should plan to go high in the mountains for the best opportunity at bigger bucks.
Numbers are generally stable to increasing following several mild winters between 2020-2021. Annual spring recruitment surveys in HD 201 showed similar recruitment compared to previous years, while in some parts of the Blackfoot Valley (HDs 282/285, 292, and 290) there was a slight reduction in the number of fawns compared to recent years when the winters were milder. Although this may dampen population growth a bit, there was no evidence of heavy winter mortality, and hunters should expect conditions and success to be similar to 2022, with slightly fewer yearling bucks to pursue. As with other big game, the best opportunity will be away from roads and motorized access.
There are only a few pronghorn hunting opportunities in western Montana. Antelope numbers in HDs 215 and 291 are down from previous years but similar to 2022’s count. Hunting is limited to a few hunters who received a license through a special drawing.
Destination: SOUTHWEST MONTANA
Biologists in southwest Montana are interested in data from hunter-submitted samples for CWD testing. These sampling efforts help FWP understand the prevalence and distribution of the disease through time, which informs wildlife management for healthy herds. If you harvest a deer, elk or moose, please consider submitting samples for CWD testing. Learn more at fwp.mt.gov/cwd.
In the Bozeman area, early-season snow last season contributed to above-average harvests in most districts, which resulted in population declines particularly noticeable in districts 360 and 310. Elk are within objective in HD 304 and HD 360, below objective in HD 310, and above objective in HDs 301, 309 and 312. Few elk winter in HD 361. HD 360 was over objective, but then the effects of a strong hunter harvest, effective management season and severe winter resulted in an approximately 25 percent decline in this herd counts and its decline to within objective. Elk numbers in HD 310 remain below objective, and all antlerless elk harvest is prohibited in this district.
In the Livingston area, winter 2022-2023 was substantially harsher than other recent previous winters. This likely contributed to the increased harvest that was observed during the 2022 hunting season across most hunting districts. Lower calf to cow ratios were generally observed, suggesting that calf survival and subsequent recruitment were reduced. Increased winterkill was observed on the winter range for the northern Yellowstone herd (HD 313). Widespread harsh winter conditions helped to concentrate elk and improve observability during surveys conducted last winter. Despite winter conditions, elk populations remain robust in many HDs near Livingston, and hunters are encouraged to harvest antlerless elk where regulations allow. Consult the 2023 hunting regulations to see what license opportunities are valid in each HD.
Elk numbers in the HDs near Townsend vary. Elk in HDs 390 and 391 are found mostly on private land during the hunting season, and numbers continue to be well above objective. Access to private lands that have elk during the hunting season is always a key consideration in HDs 390 and 391. Overall elk numbers in HD 380 were slightly below objective this year. While elk numbers on national forest land are down, especially on the east side of HD 380, some private land areas in the HD may still have higher-than-desired numbers. Elk numbers in HD 392 continue to be below objective.
In the Butte area, elk populations in HDs 319 (formerly 319 and 341), 340, 350 and 370 appear stable. Although winter was long, calf recruitment was near average across all four districts. In HD 321 (formerly 321 and 334), elk populations are 10 to 22 percent lower than recent years, likely due to a high harvest last fall. Bull to cow ratios of 10-20 per 100 can be expected in all districts. Summer surveys suggest moderate antler growth. 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.
In the Dillon area, biologists did not see a reduction in elk numbers from long-term averages this past winter. However, biologists have observed a decline in bull to cow ratios and the proportion of mature bulls in the southern end of this district over time. They’ve also seen an increase in hunting pressure, with a higher number of mature bulls harvested.
In the Tobacco Roots (HD 320), biologists didn’t see any winter impacts to elk. In fact, they saw a 12 percent increase in elk numbers over last year, which puts the population about 20 percent above objective. Hunters are encouraged to harvest antlerless elk, especially on private lands, to manage elk populations here.
In HD 322, biologists saw a 20 percent reduction in elk numbers from last year, which brings the population down to management objective. The elk population remains strong, with robust calf production this year.
In the Bozeman area, mule deer fared better than elk during this winter. Numbers in the Madison Range and Bridgers were within recent average, although fawn recruitment in the Madison was low, likely due to the severe winter conditions. 2022 was a better-than-average hunting year, and all Bozeman area districts returned buck harvest numbers within or above recent averages.
Mule deer recruitment was reduced in both the Brackett Creek and Gardiner trend areas near Livingston. Total deer numbers were below the long-term average in the Gardiner trend area, where mule deer antlerless opportunity was reduced for the 2023 hunting season. In Brackett Creek trend area, deer numbers were greater than in recent years. This is likely due to winter conditions causing more deer to utilize the winter range inside the trend area rather than an actual population increase.
As a result of well-below-average mule deer fawn recruitment this spring due to this past winter, antlerless mule deer B licenses were reduced in all the Townsend-area HDs. Mule deer numbers continue to be down on national forest lands in the Townsend district for the most part. Mule deer numbers on private land vary but are still generally good at least in some localized areas, especially in areas near irrigated alfalfa.
Mule deer populations in the Butte area (HDs 319, 340, 350 and 370) appear to be on a downward trend. Hunters should note that HD 319 (formerly HDs 319 and 341) 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. Because of declining population trends, only 125 permits have been issued in HD 319 this year. The regulation in HD 340 has changed from either-sex mule deer to mule deer buck-only on the general license and a limited number of mule-deer-specific B licenses. Note that you cannot legally harvest a mule deer doe on a general deer license outside of archery season, 399-00 deer B license or 003-00 deer B license in HD 340. 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.
The 2021 drought had a serious impact on mule deer, especially fawns, in the Dillon area. In addition, the 2022-23 winter had further impacts to these deer. Those impacts are visible with a decline in fawn recruitment, which has been significantly below average. Biologists also observed a decline in buck to doe ratios in the southern end of this district, also likely due to drought and harsh winter conditions. However, forage this year has been excellent, and deer should be going into this winter in good condition.
FWP staff in the Sheridan area saw about a 10 percent decrease in total numbers of deer this spring, compared to spring 2022. That reduction was driven by a reduction in the number of fawns due to harsh winter conditions in 2022-23 and severe drought in 2020-21. Numbers of adult deer, however, remain steady. Forage has been excellent this year, and ungulates in this area should be going into winter in good condition.
In the Bozeman area, last year’s hunting season returned average white-tailed deer harvest numbers in all Bozeman area districts. White-tailed deer may have struggled in some locations due to severe winter conditions.
Biologists saw population declines in the two Bozeman-area pronghorn districts (HD 360 – Madison and HD 311 – Lower Gallatin/Madison and Horseshoe Hills) due to the severe winter. More than 30 percent of collared pronghorn in the Madison died, and spring counts also reflected a decline of that magnitude. HD 311 summer counts were also below average. Both districts saw below-average fawn production. Within-quota range downward adjustments were proposed in both districts.
Pronghorn numbers were down across most districts in the Livingston area. Although winter conditions likely contributed to reduced numbers this year, this follows declines that were observed last year. In light of reduced numbers and poor recruitment, hunting opportunity was reduced for both either-sex and doe/fawn licenses.
Even though pronghorn numbers may be abundant in some localized areas, numbers continue to be below desired numbers in the Townsend area hunting districts overall, and as such, license numbers are at quota minimums 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 the Butte area—HDs 318 and 319—are 35 percent and 15 percent below the long-term averages, respectively. Fawn production in these hunting districts was also 25 to 35 percent below the long-term average and buck to doe ratios were also lower. This reduced population performance is likely a result of the winter conditions that extended well into spring this year. Pronghorn does are known to reabsorb fetuses when their bodies can’t meet energy demands. While HDs 340 (formerly Antelope HD 341), HD 350 and HD 370 were not surveyed this year, it is expected that numbers are down in those districts as well. Either-sex and doe/fawn licenses have been reduced in several districts to better match current population numbers.
In the Dillon area, biologists have observed record-low levels of pronghorn fawn production due to drought in recent years, as well as harsh winter conditions in 2022-23. They’ve also seen a decline in the numbers of yearling bucks. These declines triggered a reduction in the quota in HD 300 (from 100 doe/fawn licenses to 50), and in HD 310 (from 175 either-sex licenses to 150). Hunters will likely have a harder time finding bucks this year in these areas. Antelope will also be more widely dispersed in smaller groups this year due to good forage.
Biologists observed about a 15 percent increase in the pronghorn population in HD 320 over last year driven entirely by an increase in the number of does. Fawn recruitment and buck numbers were very low. Hunters in this area may expect to see more antelope, but most of that increase will be does.
Antelope numbers in HD 322 remain near the long-term averages, but with low fawn recruitment and buck numbers. Drought conditions in 2020-21 and severe winter conditions had a greater impact on bucks and fawns.
Hunters with antelope licenses for this area should consider hunting in the Centennial Valley, from Lima Reservoir out to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. That’s where they’ll find the best hunting opportunity in HD 322.
Destination: NORTH-CENTRAL MONTANA
Although increased winter and spring precipitation over the past year has eased some of the extreme drought conditions that impacted parts of Montana, populations of deer and pronghorn still remain below average in many of the hunting districts in northcentral Montana, most notably in some of the region’s eastern and southern hunting areas. A bright spot for hunters is that elk numbers remain at or above average in most of the region.
Hunters can look forward to good numbers of elk on the landscape, since elk survival and calf production were near normal, leading to an expectation of generally good elk hunting across much of northcentral Monta in the upcoming season.
The southern Rocky Mountain Front continues to show overall stability for elk numbers compared to recent years. The Sun River elk herd population remains near long-term average, with bull to cow numbers also near long-term average, although hunters rely heavily on snow and cold weather to move these elk into areas where they are accessible.
Strong elk numbers persist along the northern Rocky Mountain Front, and also that elk numbers in the Sweetgrass Hills are significantly above long-term average.
Elk numbers in the Little Belt and Highwood mountains appear to be stable.
Elk distribution and accessibility on public land can often be highly weather dependent, and hunters should be aware that access to big game on private land can be difficult to obtain, so they should respectfully seek permission as early as possible to hunt those areas.
Mule deer are surveyed by biologists conducting aerial post season and/or spring surveys in 17 of the 33 hunting districts in Region 4. These surveys represent typical habitat for the area and provide a “snapshot” of the population status that is representative of the larger area. Based on recent survey data and conditions, most of the Prairie Mountain Foothill units of western Region 4 are currently under a “restrictive” hunting season structure for mule deer, with antlered-buck-only hunting allowed on the general license, and few or no antlerless B licenses available.
Mule deer numbers along the northern Rocky Mountain Front are also below long-term average, as is also the case in the Sweetgrass Hills. In better news though, both mule deer and mule deer buck numbers appear to be good this year in the Golden Triangle.
The Missouri Breaks hunting districts of eastern Region 4 have seen significant declines in mule deer numbers due to harsh winters and extreme drought of past years. These areas are also in a “restrictive” hunting season structure for antlered bucks only, and hunters in eastern parts of Region 4 should expect to see noticeably lower mule deer numbers this fall. The Fish and Wildlife Commission approved an emergency measure this summer to change mule deer regulations from either-sex on the general license to antlered buck only in HDs 471, 426 and 419.
Central areas of Region 4 typically see higher mule deer fawn production and recruitment and remain in a standard hunting season structure, with either sex mule deer on a general license, and moderate levels of antlerless B licenses available. Deer populations have improved in the Little Belts after several years of low numbers and are nearly back to average.
Biologists report that white-tailed deer numbers are generally good across much of Region 4 and should provide lots of hunting opportunities for both bucks and antlerless deer with a single region over-the-counter antlerless B license available, and in some cases a second white-tailed B license may also be available to hunters. Whitetails are most prevalent in lower foothills and along rivers and streams on private land, so obtaining landowner permission early is important to a successful hunt.
Late winter weather was particularly severe in the White Sulphur Springs area this year, which significantly reduced pronghorn overwinter survival and fawn recruitment. To allow those herds to recover, FWP has recommended reductions in both antlered buck and doe/fawn pronghorn licenses this fall.
Pronghorn numbers in the Golden Triangle area of north-central Montana are slightly below long-term average, although buck numbers appear to be up slightly. Further north in the Golden Triangle, pronghorn numbers have dipped, mainly due to a combination of past drought and prolonged cold and snowy weather this spring.
FWP biologists found very high fawn recruitment in HD 430, which bodes well for the future. But pronghorn licenses for both bucks and does were reduced in HD 470 after surveys showed noticeably lower numbers there.
Destination: SOUTH-CENTRAL MONTANA
Population estimates for mule and white-tailed deer and pronghorn are all generally below long-term averages throughout south-central Montana. Elk numbers, however, have increased over recent years, but access to these elk predominantly on private land continues to be a challenge for hunters.
Late winter and early spring snowstorms across much of the region negatively impacted fawn survival for both mule and white-tailed deer. Areas along the Beartooth Front had especially low deer numbers observed during spring surveys. Near Absarokee, whitetail numbers were the lowest in over 20 years, likely due to the severe and lengthy winter in that part of the region.
Numbers in south-central Montana show a continued increase, unlike deer populations in the area. In some hunting districts, elk numbers are at record highs. A majority of these elk, however, have been observed on private land, where hunting access can be challenging.
Numbers in the region have been below the long-term average for a number of years. In some areas, fawn recruitment was significantly below this average. Mule deer numbers along the north face of the Beartooth Mountains remain 50 to 60 percent below long-term average and low fawn recruitment in 2023 will stifle recovery. In HD 590, mule deer fawn recruitment was significantly lower than the long-term average. Hunters should anticipate fewer mule deer on the landscape this year and more challenging hunting opportunities.
Numbers have increased slightly in some areas near the Musselshell River, but still remain below the long-term average throughout the region.
Overall, hunters should expect to see fewer pronghorn in the region this year, with numbers in most hunting districts at or below average. HD 526 was the only district with a slight pronghorn increase observed.
Destination: NORTHEAST MONTANA
A couple of years of drought and the hard winter in 2022-23 had impacts on population and recruitment for many big game species, and populations vary region wide. Quotas were adjusted in many districts as needed.
However, habitat conditions in much of northeast Montana have considerably improved. Abundant winter snowfall and spring summer rainfall this year has resulted in recovery of range plants, but abundant vegetation also means increased fire danger as grass dries out.
Surveys in the Missouri River Breaks in 2022 (this survey is done every-other year) were 43 percent below the long-term average, from 1995 to 2022. Cow licenses were reduced in these districts to adjust to the lower numbers observed.
The 2023 elk survey in the Bears Paw area of HD 690 was 63 percent above the long-term 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.
Populations vary widely depending on the hunting district. Overall, numbers during spring surveys showed the region-wide population at 25 percent above long-term average, but 4 percent lower than 2022.
Generally, mule deer populations remain above average in the eastern third of the region as well as the areas north of Highway 2 and adjustments in quotas reflected those numbers, including reductions in HD 690 and increases in HDs 600 and 640.
In HDs 621 and 622, where observed mule deer were 70 percent below long-term average, more restrictive measures were put into place. Buck-only harvest and no B licenses will be valid in these districts. The 620-00 antlers mule deer B license will only be valid in HD 620 for the 2023 hunting season.
The 2023 spring survey showed white-tailed deer density averages of 6.2 deer per square mile across the deer trend areas, which is 40 percent below the long-term average of 10.4 deer per square mile, and 15 percent below 2022.
Although white-tail densities across the region remain lower, larger numbers remain in some areas of the far northeast corner and the western end of the region. In addition, lower densities may mean that riparian areas have had time to recover.
Obtaining antlerless deer B licenses
Antlerless mule deer B licenses were allocated through the drawing, and some went into surplus. Surplus licenses were allocated through the surplus license list and over-the-counter sales.
Region 6 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.
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 during the past 12 years across the region from historic lows in 2011. While some survey areas have observed increased numbers and have been at or above their long-term averages in recent years, the recent drought and long winter have reduced numbers in some districts, and fawn ratios were below the long-term average in all districts. Buck ratios were near to above average in most districts.
In response to lower levels of recruitment seen during surveys, conservative numbers of pronghorn licenses were distributed through the drawing system. Those who have drawn licenses should still have a good opportunity to harvest an antelope.
Destination: SOUTHEAST MONTANA
Conditions in much of southeast Montana are considerably better than previous years 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 2022 suggest an estimated elk harvest of 73 in HD 703 and 94 in HD 701. Compare that to approximately 1,665 and 1,375 mule deer harvested in those districts, respectively. Hunter surveys indicate 498 elk taken in HD 700 and about 746 in the Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704 and 705).
HD 700 is surveyed biennially and was last 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 previous survey (15 bulls per 100 cows and 41 calves per 100 cows), but this is likely due to the exceptionally good survey conditions. Hunters should expect elk distribution to be similar to 2022.
Although the drought conditions the region experienced from 2020 through 2022 have passed and ample moisture has been experienced throughout the region this year, the effect of drought conditions on southeastern Montana deer populations remains apparent and will for a while until a few years of more favorable weather allows habitat conditions to improve. That will result in increased production and survival of mule deer.
Numbers observed this year on the 14 spring trend areas were approximately 6 percent below 2022 and 48 percent below the long-term average. Drought conditions reduced the quantity and quality of forage available to deer during spring and summer 2022.
The recruitment rate for mule deer fawns this spring saw a slight increase from 2022 observations but was below average at 48 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 1,000 antlerless mule deer licenses for the 2023 season. Historically, these licenses had been selling out by the third week of the season, but this year all were awarded during the drawing with none left for the surplus list. Hunters will be unable to purchase additional antlerless mule deer licenses during the general rifle season this fall. Additionally, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved changes to the general deer license in all Region 7 hunting districts that will shift licenses from either-sex mule deer to antlered buck mule deer only for the 2023 hunting season.
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-aged and older animals. Buck-to-doe ratios remain good, averaging 33 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.
Numbers remain variable depending on the area of the region. Drought in recent years led to epizootic hemorrhagic disease (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 in 2021, 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.
Region 7 has 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 is June 1 each year). Any surplus licenses first will be distributed through the surplus list (the deadline to sign up was July 20, 2023), and finally, if leftover licenses remain, they will be sold over the counter on a first-come, first-served basis, which began Aug. 7.
Populations in southeast Montana are similar to 2022 numbers and are 17 percent above the 10-year average. While the buck to doe ratio is below average, the overall number of bucks observed is 2 percent above the 10-year average.
With a healthy total number of bucks observed, Region 7 biologists maintained the number of regionwide, 007-20 either-sex licenses. The second opportunity 799-30 doe/fawn license, valid only in HDs 704 and 705, remained the same as 2022 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).
(Photo credit: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks)