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Hunters say game animal numbers the biggest concern

by KATE HESTON Daily Inter Lake
| September 8, 2023 7:00 AM

Hunters in Northwest Montana, while mainly satisfied with harvest opportunities for deer and elk, are concerned about game animal populations, according to a survey launched by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in late 2022.

“I think it’s been pretty consistent, people want to see more elk and mule deer on the landscape,” said Neil Anderson, the Region 1 Wildlife Manager for the state agency following the release of the survey results in June.

Across the region, hunters expressed frustration with the perceived dearth of animals on public lands, specifically the lack of mature animals. Notably, Region 1 hunters said that there are too few mature bull elk in the region as elk hunter numbers increase.

Statewide, 73% of respondents said they were satisfied with elk management and current elk hunting regulations in Montana. The main concern was hunting access on private land due to a reported lack of elk on public land.

The state wildlife agency is currently updating the state’s elk management plan for the first time since 2005. They are hoping to have a complete plan finalized this winter, Anderson said.

Of those surveyed in Region 1, 82.1% preferred the opportunity to hunt bull elk every year with a lower probability of harvesting a mature bull while 17.9% preferred to hunt for bull elk once every several years and increase the chance of getting a mature bull.

The survey indicated that harvesting a mature bull was a low priority for many hunters.

Hunters need to be open to limiting themselves if they want to see more mature bucks to harvest, Anderson said.

Bennie Rossetto, a retired physician from Kalispell and an avid hunter, is one of those concerned about elk numbers in the region. He suggested implementing antler point restrictions on elk, similar to rules in British Columbia.

“Our elk situation in Region 1 is really so different from the rest of the state,” Rossetto said.

The results for mule deer are similar. Statewide, hunters expressed contentment with the season length, timing and the ability to hunt mule deer every year.

When asked about hunting bucks every year or hunting them once every several years, around 60% preferred being able to hunt every year. The other roughly 40% said that they would choose to hunt mule deer once every few years if it meant harvesting a mature buck.

The current mule deer plan is an adaptive management plan, Anderson said, that was rewritten a couple of years ago.

Rossetto suggested changing some units to permit-only during the general season, closing certain spaces to overthe- counter, general season mule deer hunters, specifically in the Whitefish range.

“When you have those pi-diagrams, showing that the majority of the hunters want to be able to hunt mule deer every year for the whole season and they want to be able to hunt through the rut, that’s more doable in Eastern Montana where you have a lot of mule deer and where its managed for quantity and not quality,” Rossetto said.

Mule deer are less likely to reach maturity in Region 1 because of low population density and the aggressive pursuit from mule deer hunters, specifically during the rut, he said. Hunters should do more to limit themselves if harvesting a mature animal is their goal.

Montana is the only Western state that has general unlimited deer hunting through the rut, he said. The population of mule deer is limited by predation and a lack of available habitat, Rossetto said.

“I read through the survey and the overall theme I got from it was similar to what I hear from a lot of people,” said Beau Albright, the Kalispell chapter chair of the Mule Deer Foundation. “There’s not a ton of animals out there but there’s a lot of people out there.”

Albright believes that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is being as conservative as it can be to alleviate the issue, for example by prohibiting the harvest of does, but ensuring that mule deer reach maturity is difficult.

“Our mule deer up here aren’t doing great, the numbers have been trending downward and our biggest thing up here now is just trying to find ways to create good habitat for mule deer,” Albright said.

From 2012-2017, the average number of mule deer in Region 1 was 8,420.5, according to the state agency’s 2022 mule deer population report. From 2018-2022, the average was 6,374.4. Estimates are based on population modeling with surveys and harvest inputs.

It is important for interested sportsmen and hunters to offer input and get involved with the state wildlife agency, the U.S. Forest Service and even the state Department of National Resources and Conservation to build a better system, he said.

The survey also revealed that hunting close to home and in a familiar location is very important to hunters in Region 1. Region 1 respondents also found being able to hunt elk, mule deer and other game species at the same time is very important.

Opportunities to hunt antlerless mule deer in the region were ranked as “poor,” while a lack of access to private land stood out as a common criticism. 50.9% of those surveyed said that mule deer hunting regulations should stay the same.