Whitetail deer
CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

The number of hunters who stopped this past weekend at Fish, Wildlife and Parks check stations in south central Montana was down from a year ago. But the deer and elk numbers were strong overall for the fourth weekend of the general big-game hunting season.

FWP biologists operated four check stations in south central Montana over the weekend to gather biological and statistical information about harvested game. They also operated a check station at Laurel specifically to look for evidence of chronic wasting disease, or CWD, in deer and elk.

Here are some details from this past Saturday and Sunday, the fourth weekend of the 2017 general big-game season:

Columbus

Deep snow in the high country and muddy roads lower down kept some hunters away from the Beartooth front over the weekend. FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart said the result was low hunter numbers and low mule deer harvest reported at FWP’s Columbus check station.

During the fourth weekend of the 2017 general big-game season, Stewart checked 161 hunters, down from 175 on the same weekend a year ago and a long-term average of 200 hunters. Those hunters checked 24 mule deer, down from 32 a year ago and a long-term average of 50. The white-tailed deer harvest remained strong, however, with 38 animals checked, up from 34 a year ago and a long-term average of 29. Elk also were a bright spot with eight checked over the weekend, the same as last year but well above the long-term average of three.

For the entire season, 640 hunters have stopped at Columbus, the third lowest on record and well below the long-term average of 779. The white-tailed deer harvest of 94 reported at Columbus is near average while the mule deer harvest of 114 is well below the long-term average of 179. The elk harvest year-to-date is 34, double the long-term average.

Big Timber

The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Big Timber check station was the third highest on record while the deer harvest remained near the long-term average.

FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 179 hunters over the weekend at Big Timber, down from 187 last year, but well above the long-term average of 142. He checked 24 white-tailed deer, up one from the same weekend in 2016 when the count was identical to the long-term average. Elk remained a bright spot, with 13 checked over the weekend, up two from a year ago and nearly double the long-term average of seven.

For the entire season so far, 784 hunters have stopped at Big Timber – more than in any year on record for the first four weekends. Year-to-date at Big Timber hunters have checked 63 white-tailed deer, down from a long-term average of 80. The mule deer harvest is up so far this year to 150, the second most on record and 24 more than the long-term average for the first four weekends. The elk harvest remains strong with 76 checked, well ahead of the 38 during the first four weekends of 2016 and the long-term average of 31.

Lavina

At FWP’s Lavina check station, wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor checked 224 hunters over the weekend – down from 272 a year ago and the long-term average of 262. Many hunters reported that deep snow in the high country made access to forested public land difficult.

Of those who stopped, 12 had white-tailed deer, down from 14 last year and a long-term average of 21. The mule deer harvest was up nicely to 46 from 31 during the same weekend in 2016 and a long-term average of 38. Hunters checked 14 elk, well above five from 2016 but just above the long-term average of 13.

For all four weekends of the season so far, the number of hunters and the deer harvest reported at Lavina all are off substantially from the long-term average. So far 1,012 hunters have stopped at Lavina, down from 1,212 in 2016 and well below the long-term average of 1,240. Those hunters have checked 32 white-tailed deer, down from 47 in 2016 and a long-term average of 91. The mule deer harvest so far this year is 100, down from 118 last year and a long-term average of 161. The elk harvest is the third largest on record with 71 checked at Lavina so far in 2017, up from 56 a year ago and a long-term average of 49.

Billings

During the fourth weekend of the 2017 general big-game season, 418 hunters stopped at FWP’s check station in Billings Heights. FWP wildlife biologist Megan O’Reilly checked nine white-tailed deer, 101 mule deer, five antelope and 30 elk.

This is the first year that the Billings check station has operated, so there are no comparisons to last year and no long-term statistics.

Year-to-date, O’Reilly has checked 1,530 hunters in Billings with 42 white-tailed deer, 332 mule deer, 36 antelope and 113 elk. Of the hunters who stopped, 34 percent had harvested game.

Hunters are reminded that they must stop at any check station they pass while hunting, whether or not they have harvested game. Check stations primarily are intended for biologists to gather statistical information about animals and hunters.

This fall, FWP also is gathering tissue samples in southcentral Montana to test for the presence of chronic wasting disease, or CWD. CWD is a progressive, fatal disease affecting the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose. Biologists believe that early detection provides Montana with best chance of containing CWD.

Last week a sample collected southeast of Bridger tested positive for CWD. FWP is asking all hunters who harvest deer in hunting districts 510 and 502 to either stop at the Laurel check station during weekends or call the FWP Region 5 headquarters during the week to have samples tested. More information on CWD is available online at http://fwp.mt.gov/cwd.

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