Game numbers, weather consistent with recent years
By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
Warm summer days are waning as cool evenings signal what’s to come, and echoing elk bugles are beginning to fill the air. Fall has arrived and outdoorsmen and -women had the opportunity to start pursuing deer and elk on Sept. 5, the opening day of archery season for a majority of the state.
Archery season spans the month of September, concluding on Oct. 18 in most hunting districts. After a short break, general gun seasons begin Oct. 24 and ends Nov. 29 for nearly all of Montana.
Morgan Jacobsen, Region 3 information and education program manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says it’s challenging to estimate hunter participation numbers for coming and current seasons, but he has noticed an upward trend in recreational activities throughout the region this year.
“This past spring and summer, recreation in our wild places in Montana has been very high,” Jacobsen said. “It’s been unseasonably high and so if that trend continues we could very well see really high participation levels in hunting this year. Again, we don’t know for sure what that will look like until we’re in it and afterward but if the general recreation trend for this year continues to play out, we should see a lot of hunters in the field this fall.”
Jacobsen highlighted Montana’s steady population rise and the COVID-19 pandemic as two contributing factors for the recent surge in recreationists.
In 2019, Gallatin County sold more than 14,750 general base hunting licenses to both residents and nonresidents. At the same time, more than 8,600 residents bought general deer licenses and nearly 7,500 residents purchased general elk licenses within the county. Additionally, more than 3,800 residents and out of state outdoorsman and -women purchased bow-and-arrow licenses. The license sales resulted in nearly $400,000 in revenue for the state in 2019.
But hunting license numbers paled in comparison to Gallatin County’s 2019 season fishing license sales, which totaled over $750,000. More than 22,000 anglers purchased season-long fishing licenses to try their luck at enticing fish in Montana rivers, streams and lakes last year.
Jacobsen said FWP has not discussed halting or suspending nonresident game animal seasons this fall, as was done in the spring when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its earlier stages.
Weather conditions this year have been roughly on par with previous years, according to Julie Cunningham, FWP’s Bozeman area wildlife biologist. She says the agency has witnessed no adverse repercussions in game animal populations.
“In general, the winter of 2019-2020 was not exceptional, so recruitment was generally average,” Cunningham wrote in an email to EBS. “DNRC drought maps indicated average conditions in May, slightly dry conditions in June, and moderately dry conditions in July and August. Across Gallatin County, weather this spring, summer and fall should be viewed as within normal range of variation and not likely to have exceptional effects on game animals.”
Elk population counts reported late August provide encouraging data for hunters this fall. For FWP hunting districts 301, 309-312 and 360-362—the districts that encompass the county—only hunting district 310 witnessed lower than desired elk numbers through the summer.
Previous season male deer harvest data suggests populations within Gallatin County are healthy. Throughout the Gallatin County hunting districts, both male white-tail and mule deer harvest reports showed a below-average harvest in only a singular hunting district a season ago as opposed to above or average harvests for the remainder.
Hunting district 309 yielded a slimmer mule deer buck harvest in 2019 when compared to the statistical average from 2005 to 2018, according to FWP data. The same trend was witnessed for white-tailed deer bucks in hunting district 362, another report indicates.
While hunters will seek game animals this fall, Jacobsen noted that it’s important for sportsmen and -women to remember another other four-legged creature in their pursuits: the grizzly bear. When compared to 2018, a March FWP press release relayed that 2019 saw an increase in human and grizzly bear encounters, injuries resulting from encounters and grizzly bear fatalities.
“In the greater Yellowstone ecosystem—which is where we’re at in southwest Montana—we are seeing an increase in bear numbers, an increase in grizzly bear sightings outside of their recovery zone as well as encounters with hunters and recreationists in that process,” Jacobsen said.
FWP reported in the press release 18 “potentially dangerous” human-grizzly bear encounters in mainly non-residential zones in 2019. “In those encounters, five people were injured and two adult bears were killed,” the report said. “Fortunately, none of the human injuries were fatal.”
Notably, nearly 80 percent—or 14 encounters—took place after Sept. 1, the press release said.
Another new development sportsmen and -women should be aware within Gallatin County this season correlates with Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD. “Hunters … will see both the usual game check stations this fall in southwest Montana but also southwest Montana will be a surveillance area this year for Chronic Wasting Disease,” Jacobsen said.
He encouraged successful hunters to check in with these additional CWD check stations to aid in data collection efforts.
Call 1-800-TIP-MONT to report illegal game animal harvests and visit fwp.mt.gov/hunting/seasons to view game animal season dates.