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Montan FWP 

2018 big game hunting forecast


September 5, 2018

Roger Dey


Fri Aug 24 14:57:26 MDT 2018

Are you ready for hunting season? Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks can help. In addition to the following hunting forecast, FWP's provides online information about hunting access, including our popular Block Management Program. Through the program, we coordinate with landowners to provide hunting access to more than 7 million acres of private land.

The interactive Hunt Planner map allows users to look at information for various species, including hunting districts and regulations. The hunt planner interactive map is a great way to access our block management information, so if you're planning a hunt in a certain area, you can see if there are Block Management Areas available to expand your opportunity.

And, as always, you can contact our helpful staff at any of our regional offices around the state. They're happy to help and can often get you pointed in the right direction with just a few simple tips.

Montana has some of the longest hunting seasons in the West, healthy herds of game and access to millions of acres of public land. However, hunters must be mindful of fire danger and of private landowners who are facing grass shortages, poor crop production and fatigue from monitoring for fire. Hunter harvest helps to reduce wildlife densities on a stressed landscape, and perhaps to help lessen winter depredation on hay stacks or winter range.

Here are a few things hunters can do to show respect for private landowners during this dry season:

avoid vehicle use in areas with dry grass in the median

use caution when parking in areas with dry vegetation

report smoke or any signs of fire to local officials

carry a fire extinguisher or water to quickly snuff any potential fires.


From the Pintler Mountains on the west side of the region to the Absaroka Beartooth, southwest Montana is defined by high mountain rugged country and an abundance of public land. Big game thrives here, particularly elk.

In general, hunter success last year was average or above. Typically, elk hunter success during the general season improves dramatically with snow, which gets elk moving and makes them easier to track.

South of Butte - from Mount Haggin to the Big Hole Valley elk numbers are robust and consistent with last year's numbers, according to FWP Region 3 wildlife biologists.

South of Bozeman and in the Bridgers, elk numbers are strong although elk distribution can be challenging to hunters. Hunter numbers have increased, including during archery seasons, so hunter crowding can be an issue, according to Region 3 biologist Julie Cunningham.

For the Livingston area, elk and mule deer numbers are very good -- above population objectives in most units, according to Region 3 biologist Karen Loveless. Antelope were hit hard by the tough winter and numbers are down, consistent with districts to the east in Region 5. Access north of Livingston is similar to the Townsend area in that there is very little public access, including during the general and shoulder seasons. So even though there are over-the-counter antlerless licenses, hunters should secure access ahead of time. South of Livingston, there is good access to forest service land but little access on the low elevation public lands so hunters have to work a little bit to get to the public land elk opportunities.

South of Helena elk numbers are also strong. HDs 390 and 391, which are both well over objective, both have some form of a shoulder season (hunters should check the regulations for dates and for what licenses are valid). Elk in those two districts are also found largely on private lands, so hunters should work on securing access to private land early, said FWP biologist Adam Grove. There was a regulation change this year as well in HD 380 that allows hunters to harvest spike or antlerless elk the first three-weeks of the general rifle season off National Forest land in the designated north and south portions of HD 380 only (again hunters need to check their regulations).

Around Helena, elk hunting is largely weather dependent, said FWP biologist Jenny Sika. If we get snow during hunting season, elk hunter success increases. If not, hunters have to work harder and success drops. But in general elk numbers are good throughout the area.

Surveys showed slight growth in elk population across the Gravelly Elk Management Unit relative to 2017, returning the population to just above management objective. As usual, hunters should expect to encounter a lot of other hunters in this area during the initial two weeks of the general rifle season, and snow accumulation will most influence elk distribution and hunter success. Hunters should be aware that grizzly bear conflicts continue to increase across the Gravelly, Centennial, Snowcreast and Greenhorn mountains. This year has been particularly bad in regard to livestock depredations. Hunters hunting in the Gravelly Elk Management Unit are encouraged to take proper bear-safety precautions while hunting and camping in this area. Although no conflicts have been documented to date, public reports of grizzly bears in the Tobacco Root Mountains are increasing, as well. Hunters are encouraged to be bear aware in this area. Area closures of Forest Service land in the Gravelly Mountains, resulting from ongoing wildfires, are expected to last into the archery season. Hunters should inquire with the Madison Ranger District regarding closures prior to travelling to the Gravelly Mountains.

Some hunting districts in southwest Montana have elk shoulder seasons. These antlerless-only seasons are focused on private land and are typically outside of the general big game season. Hunters interested in shoulder seasons should make sure they read and understand the regulations because each hunting district is different. And, as always, hunters must get permission to hunt private land.

Mule deer population surveys indicate varied trends across Region 3. Near Townsend, mule deer numbers continue to rebound from recent lows. Across much of south-central Region 3, mule deer populations showed increase for the fifth consecutive year and are approximately three time higher than the recent low point observed in 2013.

Population surveys indicate higher white-tailed deer populations across the southern portion of Region 3 than the past three years. However, the majority of white-tailed deer are distributed within valley bottoms that are mostly privately owned. Hunters will need to obtain landowner permission for most white-tailed deer hunting. FWP recommends seeking permission well in advance of the hunting season and prior to livestock producers returning stock from summer pasture. Public land white-tailed deer harvest opportunity does exist but is less abundant and may require hunter-research to identify.

Antelope surveys of hunting districts 320 and 321 showed increased populations. As a result, license quotas for Hunting District 320 were increased. This will likely result in a few more hunters afield in this district. License quotas remained the same for hunting districts 321 and 330. Antelope hunter participation will be greatest during the initial weekend of the season. Hunters seeking less competition in the field are encouraged to hunt after the opening weekend.


Last winter was tough and hunters in some areas in north central Montana may see fewer animals, but overall game populations remain strong.

On the Rocky Mountain Front south of the Teton River, for example, overall numbers of mule deer continue to fair better than 20 years ago, said Brent Lonner, FWP wildlife biologist. However, there may be some gaps.

"Given the difficult winter," Lonner said, "fawn to doe ratios were low and hunters should expect to see a bit fewer spike bucks. But as long as last winter doesn't become an annual trend this should not have an impact on long-term population trends."

The same holds true for mule deer in the Little Belt Mountains, said Jay Kolbe, FWP wildlife biologist in White Sulphur Springs: "Mule deer fawn survival and overall numbers were about average."

As for white-tailed deer, the winter seemed to have little overall effect.

"Even after the strong winter," Lonner said, "I observed record or near record numbers of whitetails in hunting districts 444, 422 and 450."

Fewer whitetails call the Little Belts home, but Kolbe said he is seeing twins and some triplets this year.

For elk, the trend continues to be up.

"Elk recruitment and production did not seem significantly affected by the winter," Kolbe said. "Antler growth looks great this summer."

The same holds true along the Rocky Mountain Front.

"Overall, observed numbers of elk in the Sun River herd are very similar to last year," Lonner said. "Hunting regulations for elk in this area will remain nearly identical to last year with general opportunity being good, pending fall weather conditions."


The 2017-18 winter was tough on mule deer in south central Montana. Fawn recruitment was poor and adult mortality was elevated, resulting in low spring counts. In general harvest might be a bit lower than last year.

Buck harvest continues to run well below average in the southwest part of the region, even though overall populations are only slightly below long-term average. The area south of the Musselshell River and northwest of Billings is an exception, with mule deer numbers remaining above the long-term average.

Despite low fawn recruitment following the 2017-18 winter, white-tailed deer numbers remain well above objective. Harvest is expected to be quite good again this year, particularly along the Musselshell River and Flatwillow Creek.

Elk numbers remain high and above objective in all areas of south central Montana, except east of Billings where numbers are near objectives and the upper main Boulder River, where numbers are slightly below objective but stable.

Along the north side of the Beartooth Mountains, elk numbers remain high despite some loss of calves during the 2017-18 winter.

Shoulder seasons resulted in some shifts from the normal elk distribution in both the early and late season. Due to abundant precipitation this spring and early summer, the elk remain widely scattered and forage is abundant.

Access is the limiting factor for elk harvest in all areas of south central Montana.

The winter was tough on antelope throughout south central Montana. Fawn production this spring was below average.

Antelope numbers remained strong in the hunting district northeast of Harlowton and between Harlowton and Columbus. However, other districts saw moderate declines. The hunting district south of the Yellowstone River between Columbus and Big Timber showed the most dramatic decline. The decline also was noticeable northeast of Roundup. Hunters should expect to cover more miles of country to find antelope than in the past couple of years.

Range conditions are excellent, however, with ample spring and early summer precipitation throughout south central Montana. Assuming we have an "average" winter, the region should see good fawn production next spring.


In the northwest corner of Montana, the last two winters have brought harsh conditions and deep snowfall across much to the region, creating challenging conditions for recruitment of big game populations in some areas.

The snowpack in many areas was above-average late into winter, making for difficult hunting conditions a year ago and low survival rates in some areas for elk calves and deer fawns.

For elk, calf recruitment appears lower than previous years. In general, cow-to-calf ratios were observed to be lower this year in Hunting Districts 121, 140 and 150. This marks the second year of reduced calf recruitment in these districts.

Northwest Montana is unique white-tailed deer country. While most of the state is dominated by mule deer, that's not the case up here. White-tailed deer can be found from river bottoms and agriculture land to evergreen forests and high country. However, the last two winters have hurt fawn recruitment. The long, harsh winter and heavy snowpack across much of the region have resulted in some fawn and adult deer mortalities. Adult survival, even in severe winters, is generally good but based on the recruitment observed this year, the white-tailed deer population is likely down somewhat in some areas of northwest Montana. White-tailed deer numbers have been most impacted in the North Fork of the Flathead River in recent years and this year recruitment in the upper Swan was below average. The harvest is expected to be similar or decline slightly this fall. The overall harvest trend has increased since the 1970s.

Mule deer counts in the region were hampered this spring by maintenance issues and availability of the survey helicopter. FWP staff struggled to identify age classes of deer observed but only 17 fawns per 100 adults were observed during a flight of the Fisher River, a common area for mule deer, but this likely underestimates the level of recruitment in the area. Mule deer harvest has been on a decline in recent years. FWP has launched a multi-year research study of the population and its nutrition, habitat use and mortality rates in an attempt to better understand factors affecting mule deer populations in Northwestern Montana.


Elk counts in western Montana were down slightly this spring, due to a combination of factors including a good harvest last hunting season and difficult conditions for counting elk during the annual flights. Numbers of brow-tined bull elk may be a bit lower this year than last because of recent hard winters coupled with a good bull harvest last fall.

Once again, dry weather and fires in the region will contribute to more elk in irrigated crops on private land. Hunters hoping to participate in shoulder seasons this fall or winter should secure permission on private land now, and purchase an elk B-license now for private lands where B-licenses are valid. Look for the 002-00 regional B-license, new this year, and please read the regulations for your area carefully.

White-tailed deer numbers have been on an upward trend, but last year's hard winter-and two hard winters in a row in the western part of the region-have dampened fawn survival. So, the whitetail population is likely holding steady overall, rather than increasing. It's a good sign that we're still seeing twin fawns this summer. Dry weather and fires in the region will tend to concentrate deer, like elk, in irrigated crops on private land even more than usual.

Opportunities to hunt mule deer are somewhat limited in western Montana. Many districts require the hunter to have obtained a permit or B-license through the statewide application process. Hunters with buck permits or hunters hunting in districts where a special permit is not required for a buck should plan to go high in the mountains to match their stamina with the biggest bucks. An emerging opportunity for hunters in Region 2 is to hunt mule deer on private lands, where numbers generally are growing. Again, pay close attention to the regulations to make sure you are properly licensed to hunt mule deer.

Antelope hunting is a minority sport in western Montana, where numbers have increased to about 400, following transplants by FWP to the Deer Lodge vicinity in the 1940s. Hunting is limited to a few hunters with permits obtained in the statewide drawing process.

More information on antelope, deer and elk numbers in western Montana, look online at the Region 2 Wildlife Quarterly, and at Region 2 headquarters in Missoula.


The badlands, farmland and rolling prairie of southeast Montana are home to a vast number of animals, including strong populations of mule and white-tailed deer, variable antelope numbers and a growing number of elk.

Mule deer in the region recovered rapidly from their low point in 2012, and since 2016 remain at one of the higher densities seen in southeastern Montana since current surveys were initiated in the 1980s. Following back-to-back severe winters in 2009-10 and 2010-11, mule deer numbers bottomed out at 61 percent of long-term average. Spring 2018 surveys indicate populations are 29 percent above long-term average.

"Drought conditions last summer, combined with a long, cold winter that stretched into late April contributed to some winter mortality," said FWP biologist Melissa Foster. "Our spring surveys indicate that deer populations are about 11 percent below last year, but that's not concerning because our deer population is still very strong. In just five years, we've gone from extremely low to extremely high deer numbers."

"The age structure of the population continues to improve," Foster said. "Early in that recovery, the population was heavily skewed toward younger age classes; we had lots of yearlings, lots of 2-year-olds, but fewer mature deer. That's perfectly natural. It's a result of the boom in production following the population decline."

"With fewer mouths on the landscape, almost everyone enters winter in good body condition," Foster explained. "They're able to find winter browse and thermal cover, resources are essentially unlimited and fawn production and survival rates are extremely high."

Going into the 2018 hunting season, biologists expect that there will be strong cohorts of 3- to 5-year-old bucks on the landscape. Deer in the 6- to 8-year-old range will still be relatively few and far between, as these age classes would have survived as fawns or been born following the severe winters when fawn production and survival rates were low. The number of 5-year-olds this year should be modest, as they would have been born in 2013, a year with healthy fawn production but fairly low numbers of deer. Numbers of 3- and 4-year-olds will be better, and there will once again be high numbers of yearlings and 2-year-olds. Buck numbers as a whole are phenomenal; the region-wide average was 46 bucks:100 does following the 2017 hunting season.

"We are still at a high point for deer numbers," Foster said. "At 29 percent above the long-term average, habitat degradation is already beginning to occur. The drought last year means that deer entered winter with fewer fat reserves than prior years. Huge numbers of mouths on the landscape means that it will be more difficult for deer to find good winter browse and thermal cover."

Habitat is important, and high numbers of deer can have an effect.

"Deer can and do have the ability to eat themselves out of house and home," said John Ensign, FWP Region 7 wildlife manager. "When deer numbers are high like they are right now, they impact winter browse. As that browse component declines, so does the number of deer that the landscape can support."

"It's counterintuitive," Foster said. "But the best thing that we can do oftentimes to improve deer numbers is to harvest more deer."

Good harvests can mean better deer health through the winter and into spring because the habitat can better handle the pressure. This often equates to higher adult survival, as well as increased production, health and survival of fawns born the following spring.

"The antlerless mule deer quota has been at 11,000 since 2017, which means there's plenty of opportunity for hunters to fill their freezers while helping to maintain herd health," Ensign said.

Whitetail numbers have held steady in southeast Montana. Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) outbreaks have been localized in scale and small in magnitude since 2012. Local hunters will recall the last major EHD outbreak in 2011, which caused heavy mortality in whitetails throughout many parts of Region 7.

Region-wide, whitetail buck numbers are also very strong at 67 bucks:100 does following last season.

"We are at a good place right now with whitetail numbers," Ensign said. "As deer densities increase, the risk of major EHD outbreaks increases. The disease is transmitted by a biting midge. When you get deer in close proximity, it's an ideal situation for disease transmission."

"It's impossible to stockpile wildlife, including whitetails," he said. "Whether in the form of disease, drought or harsh winters, Mother Nature always intervenes."

Hunters who do their homework by scouting and visiting with private landowners should have success locating good areas to hunt whitetails.

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 Region 7. Antelope numbers in the southeast corner of the state continue to be strong. During summer surveys, biologists observed more than six antelope per square mile in the southeast corner of the state, which transitioned to a little over three antelope per square mile in the more northerly portions of hunting district 705, and fewer than two antelope per square mile throughout the rest of Region 7.

"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 increased 89 percent from the low in 2012 to a recent peak in 2016 and have since leveled off. Despite a drought last year followed by a tough winter, fawn recruitment was robust this summer. Buck ratios are also strong at 59 bucks: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 Region 7, 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 in southeast Montana are continuing moderate growth and gradual expansion into unoccupied available habitat. FWP biologists observed strong calf recruitment (53 per 100 cows) and an excellent composition of bulls (43 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.

New as of the 2016 hunting season is the 007-00 B license. This license is valid for antlerless elk throughout Region 7. During the archery-only season it is valid on all land types, and during general rifle season it can be used on all lands except for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Custer National Forest.

Beginning in 2018, the general elk license will now be 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 hunting districts in Region 7.


Mule deer populations are high across the region but vary depending on the hunting district. Overall, numbers seen during spring surveys showed region-wide population at 46 percent above average.

Winter mortality was variable across the region during the 2017-2018 winter with the highest impacts seen in localized areas around Malta and Havre.

Although a long, tough winter was observed throughout the region, the eastern portion did not experience near the snow accumulation as seen throughout the western portion of the region in areas where near record snow depths and extreme cold temperatures were observed.

White-tailed deer are on the increase across the region, but still just below average. Populations in the eastern part of the region in more of the prairie/cropland habitats are doing better than populations along the Milk and Missouri Rivers. Although whitetails are recovering in recent years, still expect lower deer numbers in areas along those rivers.

This year, Region 6 will be one of the areas of focus for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) detection, so hunters in the northern districts will be asked to voluntarily provide deer heads at certain locations.

Elk hunting opportunities in most areas in Region 6 are limited to licenses/permits awarded through special drawings. Those hunting districts where elk hunting is allowed on a general license are mostly areas with small and scattered elk populations and very limited elk hunting opportunity.

Overall, survey results found elk numbers in the Missouri River Breaks were down from the last survey, while elk numbers in the Bears Paw herd were up from last year. Elk calf numbers in both herds were near average during the surveys, indicating typical winter mortality.

Elk shoulder seasons will occur in northeast Montana from Dec. 15-Jan. 15. Hunters interested in participating in this hunting season will have had to already drawn a shoulder season license (License 696-00 or 699-00) to hunt during this shoulder season. General season elk licenses are not valid during the elk shoulder season in FWP Region 6. The Missouri Breaks shoulder season license (699-00) is not valid on the CMR Refuge.

Make sure you're familiar with the regulations for the area you plan on hunting.

In general, antelope populations were negatively affected by this past winter, and in most cases populations remain below long-term averages.

Antelope licenses are distributed through the drawing system. Major reductions in licenses were seen following the winter of 2010-11, however some increase in licenses have been seen since that time. Those who have drawn licenses should have a good opportunity to harvest an antelope.

Fire danger is higher throughout the region leading into the fall, so please be careful while hunting and camping and avoid driving or parking in taller vegetation. Please also check all local fire restrictions prior to hunting.


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