Outlook Good After Fawn Recruitment Improves, But EDH Concerns Linger

This season deer hunters in Montana will find another a mix of hunting opportunities across the state when the general season opens Oct. 26.

Montana deerOn the upside, FWP wildlife biologists are reporting better fawn production and survival in many areas. Like other big game hunting, a nice cold front with plenty of snow should lead to some good hunting this season. On the downside, reports of another spotty outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease—a fatal virus in deer that’s caused by biting insects—are coming in from across Montana.

Even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, remember Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for deer with just a general hunting license.

Depending on the hunting district regulations hunters can pursue antlered mule deer bucks, either-sex mule deer, antlered white-tailed deer, either-sex white-tailed deer. Check out FWP’s general license “cheat sheet” online at fwp.mt.gov. Click “General License Cheat Sheet” for details on all of Montana’s general license fall hunting seasons, regulations, and specific season dates by hunting district.

For more information on elk hunting in Montana, visit FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov, click “Hunting” then click Hunting Guide.

For more information on Montana’s five-week long general deer hunting season, visit FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov, click “Hunting” then click Hunting Guide.

Here’s a regional rundown on what deer hunters can expect this season.

Region 1—Northwestern Montana

  • Following two good winters with good fawn recruitment, white-tailed deer numbers in northwest Montana are generally recovering nicely from a recent population low in 2009. In parts of the region, particularly the far northwest and the North Fork of the Flathead, deer numbers will likely still be below normal. Hunters should find a lot of yearling and two-year old bucks this fall, and older bucks five years old and older, while not as plentiful as during 2008-2010, should still make up about 10-15 percent of the buck harvest. Mule deer populations remain low and hunters should not expect to find the type of mule deer hunting they enjoyed a generation ago. But the 2013 spring survey in the Fisher River, one of Montana’s better mule deer areas, showed good numbers and strong fawn recruitment, hopefully indicating some recovery in mule deer populations.

Region 2—Western Montana

  • White-tailed deer and mule deer are common but numbers generally are below historic averages. FWP has restricted hunting opportunities for antlerless deer to limit any further declines and speed population increases. Hunting for white-tailed bucks should be improving overall. Hunting for mule deer bucks is by permit-only in several hunting districts.

Region 3—Southwestern Montana

  • Mule deer populations are stable to slightly decreasing and still down from long term averages. Hunting for mule deer bucks is by permit-only in several hunting districts.
  • White-tailed deer populations, found mostly in river bottoms, are stable. The area remains fortunate not to see major die-offs from EHD as did other populations in central and eastern Montana.

Region 4—Central Montana

  • Mule deer populations are mostly stable and white-tailed deer numbers continue to increase. Some whitetail populations around Great Falls and north, however, have been hit by EHD, which may impact their numbers. Also, while it’s heartening to see mule deer numbers in some mountain ranges continue to rebuild, their numbers are still below average.

Region 5 — South Central Montana

  • Mule deer populations north of the Yellowstone River are on the upswing and approaching historical averages, reversing a decade-long trend. In the mountainous areas, particularly south of the Yellowstone River, a decline in mule deer numbers continues, prompting restrictive seasons in many hunting districts.
  • White-tailed deer living in the prairie environments north of U.S. Highway 12 have been in slow decline for a number of years, a trend that surveys continue to confirm. In the mountains south of the Yellowstone River, including along the Beartooth Front, populations are near average and growing. The population trends seem to parallel the prevalence of EHD, a fatal natural virus with symptoms similar to blue tongue. The biting midges that spread the disease do not live at higher elevations, in areas where white-tailed deer are doing best.

Region 6—Northeastern Montana

  • Effects on mule deer from the winter of 2010-11 are still being seen with regional numbers 20 percent below average, but mule deer numbers are starting to rebound in most areas. Buck ratios are also slightly below average with fewer older-age-class bucks due to winter mortality of older bucks in 2010-11. Doe licenses in most areas remain similar to 2012 and still well below levels prior to the winter of 2010-11.
  • White-tailed deer numbers in the Milk River Valley east of Malta to Nashua and in the Missouri River bottomlands below Fort Peck Dam were heavily impacted by an EHD outbreak in 2011. In those areas, numbers remain well below the long-term average, but are starting to rebound. In the Malta area numbers are slightly below average this year. An EHD outbreak has been confirmed this summer west of Harlem in the western portion of the region, so whitetail numbers will be significantly lower in this area. In the northeastern corner, numbers are near average in prairie habitats, but are still down in the Missouri River bottoms from the 2011 EHD outbreak.

Region 7—Southeastern Montana

  • Mule deer numbers are still more than 32 percent below the long term average due to the severe winter of 2010-11 that resulted in significant winter-kill of adults and fawns. Overwinter survival last year was high, and fawn recruitment this spring—up to 53 yearlings per 100 adults—increased relative to the previous year. That good news, however, was dampened by reduced fawning rates due to nutritional stress in does after the extreme winter of 2010-11. Drought conditions the summer of 2012 continued to impact deer nutrition, but forage and precipitation levels have been exceptional so far in 2013. Trend area surveys indicate that mule deer populations are up 11 percent from 2012 and deer populations are expected to continue a gradual climb. Hunters may have better opportunity in the southern portion of the region.
  • White-tailed deer populations are currently 7 percent below the 10-year average. The reduction in white-tailed deer numbers, however, is not all bad. Wildlife biologists note that whitetail numbers prior to the EHD outbreak in 2012 were too high and fewer deer on the landscape will allow habitat to recover along with deer numbers. Forage and precipitation levels have been exceptional so far in 2013. White-tailed deer can recover relatively rapidly from declines, and with double the fawn recruitment rates of last spring, it appears this process has already begun. Wildlife biologists tallied an average of 57 yearlings per 100 adults in 2013 trend surveys. Hunters who do their homework by scouting and visiting with private landowners should have success locating good areas to hunt whitetails.