The numbers of both hunters and antelope brought to check stations in south central Montana were lower than in past years for the opening weekend of the season.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists staffed biological check stations at Big Timber, Broadview and Billings this past Saturday and Sunday. While they checked a few elk and deer harvested by archers, the stations were intended to gather information about pronghorn antelope taken during the first weekend of the general rifle season.
At Broadview, FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Beyer talked with 199 hunters who had harvested 54 antelope. That was down from 204 hunters with 89 antelope in 2011.
At Big Timber, FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 324 hunters who had harvested 165 antelope. Last year 343 hunters with 221 antelope stopped at the same station during opening weekend.
At Billings, FWP wildlife research specialist Jay Watson checked 114 hunters with 45 antelope. During opening weekend in 2011, Watson checked 163 hunters with 46 antelope.
Since 2012, FWP has operated its check stations both Saturday and Sunday on opening weekend. Before that, the season opened on a Sunday and the check stations were in operation for only one day. Therefore, this year’s statistics are not directly comparable to long-term averages.
Hunters at all three check stations reported muddy roads Saturday after the first significant precipitation of the summer. But sunshine and wind dried the roads and created near ideal hunting conditions for Sunday.
Beyer attributed the low number of hunters and harvested animals to fewer antelope and fewer permits in the hunting districts surrounding Broadview. The opening-weekend checked harvest was the smallest since at least 1991. “It was apparent that the die-off associated with the blue tongue outbreak of 2007 and low fawn-doe ratios for the past five years will affect antelope numbers for several years to come,” she said.
Of the antelope counted at Broadview, 78 percent were bucks at least 1.5 years old – up from a long-term average of 61 percent. The remaining 22 percent were fawns and does.
At Billings, only 51 percent of the hunters who stopped at the check station were after antelope. The rest had been hunting birds or deer and elk with a bow.
Of the antelope checked at Billings, 56 percent were at least four years old and all but seven were bucks. No fawns and only 5 yearling antelope were checked.
Bird hunters who stopped at Billings reported seeing more game in the field than last year in most areas, Watson said.
At Big Timber, hunters reported seeing below-average numbers of antelope and many reported difficulty finding access to hunting areas. That emphasizes the importance of contacting landowners before applying for licenses, Paugh said.
Two-thirds of the antelope checked at Big Timber were bucks at least 1.5 years old while the remaining third were does and fawns, Paugh said.
Image courtesy Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks