MT FWP Big Game Forecast
October 3, 2019
By MT FWP
Destination: SOUTHEAST MONTANA – Region 7
Southeast Montana experienced above-average rainfall this summer, which produced abundant forage and cover for wildlife. Good habitat conditions will benefit wildlife populations, but that can actually make hunting more difficult, especially during the early season. With water and green forage available nearly everywhere on the landscape, critters remain spread out and difficult to find. They won’t be concentrated near wetter areas or areas with thermal cover until the forage dries out and inclement weather sets in.
Archery antelope hunters targeting water holes should expect fewer encounters since there are more options for critters to water, rifle deer hunters should expect to spend more time glassing since high vegetation offers better concealment, and heavy cover will make for tougher hiking for bird hunters and more difficult scenting conditions for gun dogs.
This year’s habitat conditions should boost populations next year (pending what Mother Nature has in store this winter), but hunters should expect to put a little extra wear on their boots this fall to find critters.
Aerial surveys of deer populations in southeast Montana indicate that both mule deer and white-tailed deer remain above long-term average numbers.
“Abundant precipitation last year made for good forage conditions and deer going into winter in good body condition,” said wildlife biologist Melissa Foster. “The winter was mild up until February, when we got about six weeks of bitter cold and snow. Seems like most deer had enough 'gas in the tank' to make it through to spring green-up.”
FWP received no reports of widespread winterkills of deer.
“Mule deer are looking good,” Foster said, “Numbers are 5 percent below last year but still 27 percent above long-term average.”
Foster determines long-term average by tracing survey data back to the 1996-97 season and harvest figures back to 1976.
Surveys show mule deer population density in southeast Montana has been increasing since about 2012, when deer numbers began to rebound from a crash following back-to-back bitter winters. In 2015, deer reached the highest density recorded in the past three decades.
The recruitment rate for mule deer fawns is also solid, climbing steadily since 2010.
“This spring we saw a recruitment of 56 fawns per 100 adults,” Foster said. “Similarly, mule deer buck harvest is 15 percent above long-term average.”
“We’ve had abundant precipitation again this year, and everything looks good in terms of fawn production survival,” she said. “Deer should again be going into the hunting season and winter in good body condition.”
It is a balancing act to keep deer numbers at a level that provides opportunity but doesn’t exceed the land’s carrying capacity. High deer numbers can mean inadequate winter browse and thermal cover, and harsh winters can compound this effect.
Buck-to-doe ratios have decreased from the past couple of years but remain at a strong 34 bucks per 100 does.
Whitetail populations aren’t quite as robust as mule deer, but numbers are still above average.
“Whitetails took a little dip this spring, with counts 26 percent below last year, but still 12 percent above long-term average,” Foster said. “Whitetail buck harvest was 3 percent below LTA last fall. Recruitment is still good at 54 fawns per 100 adults.”
“All in all, I'd say whitetail numbers are about average for our neck of the woods, and as is typical for whitetails, numbers are booming in some spots and down in others, on a very localized scale,” she said. “Buck-to-doe ratios for whitetail are at 29 bucks per 100 does.”
Antelope populations are variable across southeastern Montana. Herds in central and eastern Montana were hit hard by harsh winters in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The rate of recovery since then has been mixed in southeast Montana. Antelope numbers in the southern half of the region (primarily HDs 704 and 705) continue to be strong. During summer surveys, biologists observed nearly nine antelope per square mile in the very southeast corner of the state, which transitioned to three to four antelope per square mile in the more northerly portions of hunting district 705, and fewer than two antelope per square mile throughout most of HDs 700, 701, 702 and 703.
“The message here is that the extra windshield time to reach the southeast corner of Region 7 is absolutely worth it,” Foster said. “Hunters will find better densities and good public land opportunity in this remote portion of Region 7.”
Summer production surveys indicate that southeast Montana antelope numbers have more than doubled from the low in 2012. Fawn recruitment was solid this summer, and animals should be heading into fall and winter in excellent body condition given this year’s ample moisture and abundant forage. Buck ratios are also strong at 54 bucks per 100 does prior to this hunting season.
FWP is offering more either-sex rifle licenses than in the previous few years, allowing more sportsmen to enjoy the opportunity provided by the current strong buck numbers. Doe-fawn licenses remain relatively low at 1,500, where they have been since 2016. Again, those wishing to harvest an antelope in southeast Montana, especially a doe or fawn, will have the greatest opportunity in the southern portion of the region.
These are good times for elk hunters, as Montana elk populations continue to be strong across most of the state. In many hunting districts, however, access to private lands can be difficult, which can affect hunting success given landownership patterns and distribution of elk.
Even if you didn't draw a special permit this year, remember that Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for elk with just a general hunting license.
The most recent winter surveys indicated that elk populations in southeast Montana are continuing moderate growth and gradual expansion into unoccupied available habitat. FWP biologists observed strong calf recruitment (54 per 100 cows) and an excellent composition of bulls (38 per 100 cows).
The Missouri Breaks (Hunting District 700) and Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, 705) remain the two “core” elk populations. Outside of these areas, elk numbers across the region are low, distribution is spotty and elk are primarily found on private land where public hunting access is limited.
Bull hunting is by permit only in HDs 700, 702, 704, 705 and the far western portion of 701. In HD 703 and in the rest of 701, hunters can pursue either-sex elk with a general license.
Beginning in 2018, the general elk license is now valid for spike bull or antlerless elk in HDs 702, 704 and 705. Previously it was only valid for antlerless elk. This change provides more opportunity for sportsmen, reduces accidental harvest of spike bulls, and is not expected to have a measurable impact on bull numbers. See regulations to determine which lands the general elk license is valid for during the archery and general seasons.
Additional antlerless opportunities exist in the region via a general and/or B-license, and hunters are encouraged to review the regulations for more details on those opportunities. It is important for hunters to note that there are no elk shoulder seasons in any of the Region 7 hunting districts.