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Survey shows Western Montana hunters like mule deer regs

by MONTE TURNER
Mineral Independent | May 3, 2023 12:00 AM

When you spend enough time in the woods over the years, some changes become apparent. Spotted knapweed can grow out of anything. Moose are not as prevalent. Campgrounds are bursting at the seams with out-of-state license plates. Porcupines in western Montana have all but disappeared and mountain goats that have been transplanted appear to be thriving while the natural herds are becoming smaller.

And if it appears there are fewer mule deer, that could be true in some areas.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks picked up on this and recently completed a survey. Results from the resident mule deer hunter survey bear a striking resemblance to results from a nearly identical survey conducted by FWP in 2011.

First of all, both surveys demonstrate that mule deer hunting is very important to Montanans. Results from both surveys also show that 85% of survey respondents favorably rate mule deer hunting opportunities in Montana.

Additionally, like 2011, a strong majority of respondents are generally satisfied with current mule deer hunting regulations.

Mule deer numbers have typically been tracked over large areas using aerial surveys and declines can be attributed to several different things including winter-kill, short-term habitat changes, like those that result from drought to potentially long-term habitat changes in other parts of the state. Predation plays a part in these declines as well.

“We’ve worked hard to be adaptive in our mule deer management over the past few decades,” said Brian Wakeling, FWP’s game management bureau chief. “However, some of the data we’re using to guide decisions needs to be updated, and it’s time to start testing our old assumptions and make sure our efforts are in line with the expectations and desire of hunters.”

Part of the effort the state is undertaking has involved an expansive public opinion survey, which was sent out to 5,000 randomly selected resident hunters this past winter. The survey nearly matched the one conducted in 2011, and the results were similar as well.

They show continued support for current mule deer management in Montana, including season length, timing and the opportunity to hunt mule deer every year.

However, the survey also indicates that some hunters are looking for changes. For instance, when presented with the question of hunting bucks every year or hunting them once every several years, about 60% of hunters liked the ability to hunt mule deer bucks every year, which is generally the current framework in Montana.

However, nearly 40% of hunters would choose to hunt mule deer bucks once every several years if it meant having the opportunity to harvest a mature buck.

Hunting District 270-50 in the Bitterroot is known for trophy mulies. In 2022, a hunter had a 0.51% chance of drawing a permit to pursue one of these beasts. 8,881 applied for 45 permits.

In Mineral County, HD 202-50 requires a permit for a mulie buck also where 150 are given out each year at better odds of 24.15% of being chosen.

“The reason HD 202 is a permit-only is in an effort to increase the quality of bucks for those lucky enough to draw a permit. Otherwise, most bucks would not make it to a trophy or larger size because they would be harvested,” reports Ryan Kilmstra, Missoula Area Biologists for FWP. “It is a strategy to provide a higher quality hunt which I believe was in response to the public.”

Hunters in this area will tell you that finding a trophy buck in HD 202 is not necessarily easy. Some say that a big reason is that many of those who have drawn a permit are specifically meat hunters and take the first buck they see. Obviously, these bucks will never have a chance to become a trophy.

Wolves, bears and mountain lions are also a strong reason from hunters. You’ll also hear that the forest fires have devastated their forage, but Kilmstra says that’s not true.

“Fire helps create good habitat and quite honestly more acreage in that whole region needs to burn (from a wildlife perspective). Post fire growth is the most palatable and nutritious for both mule deer and elk. The fires from 2017 are still benefiting the population today but fires or disturbance every year in a mosaic type pattern across the landscape would benefit the most,” he said.

For the upcoming hunting season, the special mule deer permits have already been awarded and if you were unlucky for HD 202, Kilmstra still has good news for hunters in Mineral County.

“The mule deer population in both 201 and 202 have been holding steady for the past couple of years. Again, the main difference between the two districts would be the higher abundance of trophy quality animals found in 202.”

In 201, your general deer tag works for either mulie or whitetail bucks.