Following three consecutive mild winters, the 2022-2023 winter was a return to a colder and snowier season across the region. Although the winter was long, animals headed into the winter in good condition last fall, and coupled with the moderate snow levels, spring surveys showed that most populations remained relatively stable. An abnormally cool spring delayed green-up, however above average precipitation through June provided for good forage, which should have contributed to fast recovery of fat stores and good antler growth.
Dry conditions and wildfires are impacting some of the region heading into hunting season, and hunters should check fire restrictions and closures before heading into the field.
For more detailed information on antelope, deer and elk numbers and hunting opportunities in western Montana, check out past editions of the FWP Region 2 Wildlife Quarterly.
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Hunting district boundary changed last year in HDs 201/202/240/285 in 2022. Also, for the second season, elk hunters with limited bull permits are restricted to hunting the district they hold their permit, with the exception of HD 270 in the southern Bitterroot.
For Blackfoot-area elk hunters, most elk herds are below, or near, the lower range of population objectives. Elsewhere in the region, most elk herds are at or above population objectives. Most districts offer brow-tined bull hunting opportunities on the general license except HDs 217, 250 and 282, which are on limited permits.
There are some early season antlerless hunting opportunities on private lands in several HDs in the Blackfoot, Upper Clark Fork and Bitterroot. Hunters that hold these licenses are encouraged to contact the local biologist to facilitate connecting with landowners experiencing game damage issues.
The migratory nature of many of the elk herds in the region means that where elk are found is largely weather dependent. In seasons with early snowfall, elk tend to move to lower elevations where they can be more accessible to hunters.
Opportunities to hunt mule deer are somewhat limited in western Montana. Some districts require a permit or B license, awarded through the statewide application process earlier this year. For the second season, several hunting districts allow mule deer buck harvest on the general license for the first three weeks of the general season only, so hunters are encouraged to read the regulations closely. The three-week season applies to HDs 204, 212, 213, 214, 215, 217, 240 and 292.
Overall, mule deer numbers are down from historic levels, but buck harvest has remained relatively stable in other districts. Spring surveys showed good recruitment of new deer to the population, despite the long winter, and hunters should expect conditions and success to be similar to 2022. Mule deer hunters should plan to go high in the mountains for the best opportunity at bigger bucks.
Numbers are generally stable to increasing following several mild winters between 2020-2021. Annual spring recruitment surveys in HD 201 showed similar recruitment compared to previous years, while in some parts of the Blackfoot Valley (HDs 282/285, 292, and 290) there was a slight reduction in the number of fawns compared to recent years when the winters were milder. Although this may dampen population growth a bit, there was no evidence of heavy winter mortality, and hunters should expect conditions and success to be similar to 2022, with slightly fewer yearling bucks to pursue. As with other big game, the best opportunity will be away from roads and motorized access.
There are only a few pronghorn hunting opportunities in western Montana. Antelope numbers in HDs 215 and 291 are down from previous years but similar to 2022’s count. Hunting is limited to a few hunters who received a license through a special drawing.