The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission on Tuesday advanced several proposed changes to mule deer hunting aimed at bolstering some struggling populations in western Montana.
Wildlife managers say that mule deer in northwest Montana’s Region 1 and west-central Region 2 have seen declines with habitat a prevailing issue.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that we’ve seen a decline in the overall mule deer population over the last decade, probably the last two decades, all across northwest Montana and I think that would apply to other states with similar habitat,” Neil Anderson, Region 1’s wildlife program manager told the commission.
Anderson cited a decrease in logging and thick re-growth of forests as unfavorable to mule deer and affecting both distribution and numbers.
FWP looked at a number of options including whether instituting antler restrictions, meaning a buck must have a certain number of tines to be legal, could bolster herds. Studies had not shown antler restrictions tried in other states were successful in enhancing the age class of bucks or the overall buck-to-doe ratio, Anderson told the commission.
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The last two weeks of the season generally fall over the deer rut when bucks become more vulnerable. In some districts FWP proposes limiting hunting during the rut.
In Region 1 FWP proposes combining the majority of Hunting District 101 with Hunting District 109 south and west of Eureka into a HD 101. Hunting of mule deer bucks in that district will be open on a general license for the first three weeks of the season and a limited-permit during the last two weeks of the season. The quota would be set at 15 for the limited permit.
In Region 2 many hunting districts carry an unlimited permit. The idea behind the permits is to limit hunting pressure by making mule deer hunters choose the district where they’ll hunt before the season. The permits generally have not proven successful at significantly bolstering herds.
FWP now proposes eliminating unlimited permits in favor of shortened seasons. Hunting Districts 204, 212, 213, 214, 215, 217, 240, 281 and 292 would shorten the mule deer season to three weeks instead of the current five. The agency also proposes a similar shortened season in HD 285, which is not currently under an unlimited permit. HD 282 would move to a limited permit under the proposal.
In southwest Montana’s Region 3, FWP proposes moving HDs 380 and 392 to limited permits.
Those testifying to the commission Tuesday echoed concern about western Montana mule deer numbers in many areas.
Chris Marchion from Anaconda said particularly in HD 214 near Anaconda, mule deer are scarce.
“I think the proposal for a three-week season from unlimited is probably a step in the right direction,” he said. “It may not get us where we want, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Jeff Darrah with the group Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife encouraged more emphasis on predator control in those areas of concern.
Gayle Joslin, a retired wildlife biologist from Helena, noted that whitetail deer are known to outcompete mule deer. She encouraged conservative regulations for mule deer and more liberal regulations for whitetails.
The commission unanimously advanced the deer season proposals for a 30-day public comment period, which will include public meetings on deer and other hunting seasons. The commission will take a final vote on the measures in February.
More information is available at www.fwp.mt.gov.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.