Hunters took advantage of some good tracking snow, elk movement and the annual deer rut to get some meat for the freezer last weekend in the Bitterroot Valley.
After harvesting game, the next challenge for hunters came in finding someone to process it.
On Wednesday morning, a line of pickup trucks waited on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 93 at Hamilton Packing north of Hamilton for a chance to drop off their wild game for processing.
Shaneesta Jessop of Hamilton Packing said she had never seen anything like it in the six years that she’s worked there.
“That was definitely the biggest line that we’ve ever had,” she said.
Jessop said the meat-packing company has had to turn away hunters on some days because their coolers were full.
“This is probably one of the biggest years that we’ve seen,” she said. “I think there’s a combination of reasons. There aren’t as many places who process wild game. I know we’re also seeing a lot of out-of-state hunters. And, with COVID, I think there are a lot of people who want to fill their freezers this year.”
Lolo Locker in Lolo has been seeing the same thing.
“It’s been crazy here ever since COVID hit,” said Matt Moran of Lolo Locker. “Wild game has been nuts. I think we’re even busier than last year. We’ve seen a lot of elk, deer and antelope. There’s been more moose and bear too. All around, it’s just been busier.”
On Thursday, the business was turning away wild meat because its cooler was full.
“We should start taking it again on Friday,” Moran said. “We have been seeing a high demand for beef and other domestic livestock too. There’s never enough room in the cooler. We kind of go day-by-day and let people know if we have room as they come in.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bitterroot-based biologist Rebecca Mowry said last weekend’s numbers of hunters coming through the Darby check station nearly matched opening weekend’s numbers.
“In all the years that I’ve been here, opening weekend has by far been the busiest,” Mowry said. “I think the fact the weather was so bad during opening weekend kept some hunters home and now maybe they are more motivated to get their freezer filled.”
Other check stations in west-central Montana saw the same bump in hunter numbers and harvest.
With the annual buck deer rut underway, the cumulative deer harvest at FWP check stations at Darby, Bonner and Anaconda doubled from where it was on the previous weekend. Overall hunter success at the three sites jumped from 6.8% to 8% with the addition of numbers from last weekend.
The total number of hunters checked through the Darby station continues to trail the five-year average, but the number of animals they have harvested is the second-highest in five years.
So far, 2,428 hunters have stopped at the Darby check station through last weekend. They harvested 133 elk, 27 mule deer, 44 white-tailed deer, one black bear, one mountain sheep, one goat and one wolf for a total of 208 animals.
Last year at the same time, 2,928 hunters checked through 135 elk, 30 mule deer, 52 white-tailed deer, one black bear, one moose and one sheep for a total of 220 animals.
Last year, 7.5% of hunters were successful. So far this year, 8.6% of hunters had harvested game.
Mowry said this year’s regulations offer some additional opportunity for both white-tailed and mule deer hunters.
“We usually do see an uptick for deer hunters during the rut,” she said. “There’s also a nice amount of snow. It sounded like elk were moving around a lot this past weekend.”
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