BILLINGS – The number of hunters who ventured into the field in south central Montana over the weekend found cold, snow and low visibility, which tempered the opening-weekend harvest. But those who braved the weather and put in some effort found some success, particularly as measured at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks check station in Billings.
Here are some statistics gathered at five FWP check stations in south-central Montana.
Heavy snow Saturday plus wind and mud on Sunday along the Beartooth front kept many hunters home and limited the opening weekend harvest measured at FWP’s Columbus check station.
FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart said 110 hunters stopped at Columbus over the weekend – down from 192 during the same weekend in 2018 and a long-term average of 203. He checked seven white-tailed deer – the lowest opening-weekend numbers in the past 20 years and 68 percent below the long-term average of 22. The same weekend in 2018 hunters checked 23 white-tailed deer.
Hunters also checked nine mule deer, down from 22 in 2018 and a long-term average of 42. Elk accounted for the only increase with nine animals checked, up from five a year ago and a long-term average of six. Of those hunters who stopped at Columbus, 24 percent had harvested game – down from 30 percent last year and a long-term average of 36 percent.
Many hunters who stopped at FWP’s Big Timber check station complained that heavy snow on Saturday and blowing snow on Sunday hampered their hunts and limited their harvest. Just 268 hunters stopped over the weekend, down from 343 in 2018, when unseasonable warmth also limited the harvest.
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 32 white-tailed deer, down from 37 a year ago but still above the long-term average of 20. Hunters checked 28 mule deer, down from 47 in 2018 and just under the long-term average of 33. Hunters had 17 elk, down from 28 a year ago but above the long-term average of 13. Of the hunters who stopped at Big Timber, 35 percent had harvested game, down from 42 percent a year ago and a long-term average of 43 percent.
A record-low numbers and harvested animals were checked at FWP’s Laurel check station over the weekend, thanks to heavy snow and wind in the Pryor and Beartooth mountains.
FWP wildlife research specialist Jay Watson checked just 112 hunters with 25 harvested animals over the opening weekend of the general big-game season. In 2018, 154 hunters stopped on the same weekend with 32 animals. The 10-year average is 163 hunters with 44 harvested animals
Hunters checked five white-tailed deer, less than half of the 11 from 2018 and an average of 14. The mule deer and elk harvest measured at Laurel kept pace with 2018. Hunters brought in 16 mule deer – up one from last year, but below the 10-year average of 28. They checked four elk, identical to last year and double the 10-year average of two.
Of the hunters who stopped at Laurel, 22 percent had harvested game, up two percentage points from the same weekend in 2018, but four percentage points below the 10-year average.
High winds, low visibility and snow on Saturday meant many hunters who stopped at FWP’s Lavina check station were headed home early without harvesting game. Business picked up as the sun came out Sunday, but hunters and harvested animal numbers still were below last year and the long-term average.
FWP wildlife biologists Ashley Taylor checked 381 hunters over opening weekend – down from 396 in 2018 and a long-term average of 415. Of those who stopped, 15 percent had harvested game, well below last year’s 18 percent and an average of 21 percent.
The elk and white-tailed deer harvest numbers were strong. Hunters checked 24 elk, down only two from a year ago and above the average of 18. Hunters checked 13 white-tailed deer, nearly double the seven from 2018 but half of the long-term average of 26. The mule deer harvest measured at Lavina was 13 animals for the weekend, down from 29 a year ago and an average of 32 for opening weekend.
FWP’s check station in the Billings Heights had the most opening-weekend traffic since it opened in 2017, despite uncomfortable weather.
FWP wildlife biologist Megan O’Reilly checked 434 big game hunters on Saturday and Sunday, up sharply from 241 during the general season opener in 2018. In addition, 13 bird hunters stopped. Hunters checked 16 white-tailed deer, up from just six a year ago. They had harvested 57 mule deer, up from 36 in 2018. Hunters checked 38 elk, more than double last year’s total of 17 from the same weekend.
Of those who stopped at FWP’s Billings Heights check station, 26 percent had harvested an animal, down only slightly from 28 percent in 2018.
FWP’s check stations in south central Montana will operate on weekends through the end of Montana’s general big-game season on Dec. 1. Hunters are reminded that they must stop at any check station they pass while hunting, whether or not they have harvested game. Check stations primarily are intended for biologists to gather statistical information about animals and hunters.