By Vivaca Crowser, MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks
At the close of the first week of hunting season in west-central Montana, elk harvest is slightly ahead of last year, due mostly to hunter success in the East Fork of the Bitterroot, while deer harvest lags behind.
Hunters checked 220 elk in the season’s first week, compared to 204 last year. Most of the elk harvest was tallied at the hunter check station near Darby.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Wildlife Manager, Mike Thompson, said that quite a few elk were staging on the Big Hole-East Fork Divide at the start of the season and available to hunters with brow-tined bull permits in Hunting District (HD) 270.
“The storms we’ve been having, even though relatively mild, should be enough to help keep elk moving and available to hunters in the East Fork,” Thompson said.
Elk hunters in the Blackfoot have not been as lucky so far this season where, like most places across the region, elk have not yet been pushed to their lower elevation winter ranges. Plus, as Thompson points out, opportunities to harvest antlerless elk are limited in the Blackfoot districts, like many places across the western and southern reaches of the region.
“Limited antlerless hunting opportunity, combined with lower bull numbers in parts of the Blackfoot north of Highway 200, and limited snow, is making elk hunting more challenging right now,” Thompson says.
For deer hunters, harvest lags 25% below last year and the five-year average across west-central Montana, but the Darby hunter check station also reflected a bit of a bright spot for western Montana deer hunters. White-tailed deer harvest is on track with last year at the Darby station and 26% above the five-year average. Mule deer harvest is on par with last year and 19% below the five-year average.
In the Blackfoot, mule deer harvest is comparable to last season’s first week, while white-tailed deer harvest lags. And in the eastern reaches of the region near Anaconda, deer harvest has been slow, but changing conditions are likely to boost success.
“Deer are already showing signs of rut,” said Ray Vinkey, FWP biologist in the Upper Clark Fork area. “This combined with cold snowy conditions will likely offer deer hunters good days in the field in the weeks ahead.”
For the second year FWP also operated a check station at the mouth of Fish Creek in Mineral County. FWP biologist, Vickie Edwards, checked 443 hunters at the Fish Creek station during the first week of the season and 10 deer.
Just over seven percent of hunters that traveled through one of the region’s hunter check stations during the first week of the season harvested game. Check stations tallied 5,292 hunters and a harvest of 220 elk, 43 mule deer, 117 white-tailed deer, one black bear, and one bighorn sheep.
Hunters are reminded that they must stop at all check stations that they pass on their way to or from hunting—even if they have not harvested any animals. The general rifle season for deer and elk runs through Sunday, December 1.