Mule deer numbers have experienced recent declines in many areas of one Rocky Mountain state but could be improving, according to optimistic outlooks by some biologists.
Favorable weather and habitat conditions this year could help spur an uptick in some areas, but it’s not all wine and roses across the board.
According to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency, recent seasonal insect-related disease outbreaks have reduced white-tailed deer populations in parts of eastern, central and west-central Montana. Other areas have stable populations of deer, with favorable weather and habitat conditions in 2014 enhancing recruitment levels across the state.
Bottom line, deer hunters in Montana will find improving populations but a mix of hunting opportunities when the general season opens Oct. 25.
Here’s a regional rundown on what deer hunters can expect this season.
Region 1, northwestern Montana: Fawn recruitment for most of northwestern Montana for white-tailed deer is good for the fourth straight year. As a result, hunters can expect to find not only more white-tailed bucks this fall, but more bucks in the 3-year-old age category. Mule deer populations remain low and hunters should not expect to find the type of mule deer hunting they enjoyed a generation ago.
Region 2, western Montana: White-tailed deer are common and numbers are generally stable to increasing across most of the region, but mule deer numbers remain low. FWP has restricted hunting opportunities for antlerless deer to speed population increases in both species.
Region 3, southwestern Montana: In the central part of the region mule deer numbers continue to increase from low points in 2010 and 2011 in hunting districts 311, 312, 360, 362, the Gallatin and Madison areas. White-tailed deer numbers continue to be generally good.
Region 4, central Montana: Mule deer populations are mostly stable but below long-term averages, and white-tailed deer numbers continue to increase. After last year’s whitetail decline in some areas due to epizootic hemorrhagic disease, there’s been good production this year and a rapid recovery is expected.
Regions 5, south-central Montana: Mule deer numbers throughout south-central Montana are stable or up slightly from last year, though they remain 30 to 40 percent below the long-term average. Harvest likely will be similar to last year. White-tailed deer numbers are quite low at lower elevations and north of the Yellowstone River, at least partially because of last summer’s outbreak of EHD. Numbers closer to the mountains, where the bugs that spread the disease are not present, remain reasonably strong. Whitetail buck harvest opportunities likely will be similar to last year, while antlerless harvest will decline due to significant reductions in B tag numbers.
Region 6, northeastern Montana: Effects on deer from recent hard winters are still being seen but mule deer and white-tailed deer numbers are rebounding in most areas.
Region 7, southeastern Montana: Mule deer numbers are 8 percent below the long-term average compared to 32 percent below long-term average last year. Overwinter survival last year was high, and fawn recruitment this spring — up to 61 yearlings per 100 adults — increased relative to the previous two years. Hunters may have better opportunity in the southern portion of the region. White-tailed deer populations are 9 percent below the long-term average. Whitetail populations are variable throughout the region at the present time. Where disease did not occur, high densities of whitetail are present. In nearby areas that experienced disease outbreaks in the past two years, numbers may be low. Forage and precipitation levels have been exceptional so far in 2014. White-tailed deer can recover rapidly from declines, and it appears this process has already begun. Wildlife biologists tallied an average of 61 yearlings per 100 adults in 2014 trend surveys.