Opening weekend hunter numbers at three of south central Montana’s four check stations were substantially below normal this past weekend. Only the Big Timber check station recorded more hunters than last year during the first weekend of the general big game season.
Hunter success was better than last year, however, with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists at Columbus, Lavina and Laurel counting a higher percentage of hunters with game than in 2011.
At Laurel, 156 hunters stopped at the FWP check station – the lowest number for opening weekend in the past 10 years. The percentage of hunter with game was up, however, to 31.4 percent from 21.6 percent in 2011.
FWP wildlife research specialist Jay Watson said hunter numbers were higher on Saturday than Sunday, but the harvest totals were similar for both days. Warm weather on Saturday changed to windy, then cool and cloudy conditions by Sunday.
White-tailed deer checked at Laurel were split evenly between bucks and does while 86 percent of the mule deer were bucks.
At the Big Timber check station, FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh reported 17 harvested elk – the most ever seen during opening weekend. And, while twice as many antelope were checked as the same weekend last year – 26 – hunters reported seeing fewer animals than they ever remember.
Overall, 38 percent of hunters who stopped at Big Timber had harvested game – a number identical to last year.
The number of white-tailed deer checked was up slightly from a year ago while mule deer numbers were down slightly. In the Big Timber district, Paugh said, deer seemed to be concentrated around irrigated agricultural land, taking advantage of what little green vegetation was available.
At Columbus, FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart said hunter numbers were the lowest since 2006, when the season opened on a Sunday and statistics were gathered for only one day. Despite favorable weather, only 84 people checked in at Columbus on Saturday. That was the fewest first-day hunters since FWP started keeping records in 1977.
The percentage of hunters with game was well ahead of last year – 45 percent compared to 40 percent in 2011—Stewart said.
Checked white-tailed deer were up – 38 compared to 28 in 2011 – while the mule deer harvest was down from 36 last year to 24 this past weekend. The mule deer harvest number was expected since most of the Beartooth Face is closed to mule deer does this year.
The elk harvest was identical to 2011’s record-high of nine, Stewart said.
At Lavina, FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Beyer reported that 396 hunter stopped during the weekend – which is well below last year’s 458 people and below the average counted since Montana started a Saturday opening two years ago. The percentage of hunters taking home game remained about the same as last year, however, with one in five people harvesting an animal.
While the 18 white-tailed deer harvested was more last year’s record-low 10 animals, it still ranks as among the smallest on record.
The number of elk checked at Lavina – 20 – was a little more than half of last year’s 36 animals, but still 93 percent above the long-term average for the opening weekend of the season.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks operates check stations throughout the antelope and general big game seasons to gather biological information about the state’s herds and hunting conditions. Game wardens also check some hunters at the stations for compliance with state laws.
All hunters are required to stop at any check station they pass either on the way to or the way home from the field, whether or not they have harvested game.