Deer, elk gun opener is finally here!
White-tailed deer and elk will be two of the most sought big game animals when hunters head to the woods Saturday for the general big game opener. (Photo courtesy Liz Bradley, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks)
By MONTE TURNER
The general hunting season for deer and elk begins Saturday in Montana and with it tens of thousands of hunters will take to the fields and forests seeking a trophy and meat for table.
Mineral Independent reporter Monte Turner spoke with Region 2 wildlife biologist Liz Bradley about the county's deer herds.
What is the health of the deer herds in Mineral County? Whitetail and Mule deer.
So far we have not detected any Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Mineral County but we are keeping an eye out for it. Mineral County is not a surveillance area but hunters can still get their harvested deer or elk tested for free, if they choose. They can take the sample themself and send it in or they can visit our office in Missoula for help getting
their sample collected during the general hunting season: Monday–Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
See our website for
information on how to submit a sample:
Both deer....what habitat do they thrive the best in?
White-tailed deer can live in a variety of habitats but generally prefer forested areas, a mix of forest/open habitat, and river/creek bottoms. They can be found at all elevations in Mineral County but will move down to lower elevations along river/creek bottoms in the winter. Many whitetails of course congregate in and around alfalfa and other green agricultural fields, while many occur in more remote habitats.
Mule deer thrive in the open country of eastern Montana. In Mineral County and other forested habitat in western Montana they can be found in the summer spread out widely in forest and subalpine.
In the winter they user lower elevation open shrub dominated slopes.
Generally, white-tailed deer prefer gentler terrain, even though sometimes very steep. Mule deer are adapted to use more rugged, broken terrain and bigger bucks will sometimes be found on scree slopes where you would look for mountain goats.
When was the last serious winter kill and how long does it normally take for a herd to recover?
The most severe winter in recent history was in 1996-97. Our deer and elk herds took a big hit that winter. White-tailed deer and elk recovered but in many places in western Montana, mule deer still haven’t bounced back to the same population levels they were at before then.
We’ve had some hard winters in Mineral County in recent years and although not as severe as 1996-97 we’ve seen some cumulative effects of having a few hard winters in a row starting in 2016-17. I do ground surveys for white-tailed deer in Mineral County in the spring and count adults and fawns. We had poor recruitment of fawns for a couple of years because of the harder winters. This past winter was milder and I saw higher numbers of fawns which will mean more yearling bucks for hunters to have the opportunity to harvest this fall.
Population difference, if any, before wolves (about 1995) and after wolves? What about behavior changes as new locations and larger/smaller herds?
Wolves are one more factor, on top of many other factors including hard winters and other predators, that can affect deer populations. When there are hard winters wolves have an advantage because prey are weaker and easier to hunt. Therefore we see that hard winters are even harder on deer because of increased predation and with wolves on the landscape we’ve noticed that it means it will take longer for white-tailed deer to recover from a hard winter. Research has shown that mountain lions often take more mule deer than wolves take.
On mule deer, how many permits are given out for HD 202 and how long has this been permit only? What was/is the reason behind on this district and not any others around here?
We currently give out 150 permits for mule deer bucks in HD 202. We've managed this as a trophy area for mule deer starting in 1998. The reason was because we were seeing a steep decline in harvest through the 1990s
(harvest is an indicator of population size). The original intent was to turn around this decline and it has worked.
We were also interested in providing hunters an opportunity to harvest bigger bucks and this was an area with a lot of public land we thought would grow trophy sized animals. We have had a good stable harvest of mule deer bucks from that unit since and some very nice trophy mule deer have come out of this unit.
Would a 4-point or better system for HD 202 increase trophy muley buck opportunities?
In Montana we have mainly stayed away from point restrictions because they generally don't work to grow bigger bucks (in Montana we don't use point restrictions very often or if so, it might be for a different reason). Especially in a forested place like Mineral County, it’s hard for hunters to see and be able to count antler points in most
hunting situations. That being said, whenever we have a mule deer area with a special draw people generally will hold out for a bigger buck so we usually see more harvest of 4-point or better bucks than smaller bucks in these trophy areas.
In 2019 for example, 68% of the bucks that were harvested in HD 202 were 4-point or better. We get this data from the hunter harvest survey (phone call surveys). Overall harvest of bucks in HD 202 has been up over recent years which is a good indicator that they population is doing well.
We work on improving habitat which can lead to improved nutrition and therefore potentially better body size and antler growth. Good habitat also helps deer put on better fat stores for the winter and increase their likelihood of survival and successful reproduction.
Two recent natural fires in HD 202 (Sunrise fire and West Fork Fish Creek fire) improved the habitat in those areas for mule deer by stimulating growth of new shrubs and forbs. We also work with the Forest Service to identify winter ranges that can be improved with prescribed fire and there are several projects in the works including one in Dry Creek near Superior and Burdette Creek in the Fish Creek drainage that will help improve habitat for both mule deer and elk. Other forestry projects can also help improve both winter and summer range by opening up the canopy to allow grasses, shrubs, and forbs to grow. But cover retention is also an important component to have in the mix.