Hunters starting to see the start of the fall mule deer rut
BILLINGS – Seasonally warm weather seemed to keep many south central Montana hunters home over the third weekend of the 2021 general big-game season. Depending on where one looked, numbers of hunters who stopped at Fish, Wildlife & Parks check stations and the number of animals they had harvested, ranged from about average to historically low.
Hunters told wildlife biologists that they are starting to see the start of the mule deer rut, when bucks are pursuing does for mating and often are less wary and more available to hunters.
Here are some details from FWP’s south central Montana check stations. COVID-19 kept the region’s check stations closed in 2020, so all comparisons are to 2019.
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Columbus check station and the number of checked deer remained at record low levels during the third weekend of Montana’s general hunting season.
FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart checked 78 hunters over the past weekend, an all-time low that was down from 125 during the same weekend in 2019 and a long-term average of 187. Hunters checked four white-tailed deer, down from 12 in 2019 and a long-term average of 22. Hunters had harvested 11 mule deer, down from 20 two years ago and a long-term average of 44. The numbers of checked mule deer and white-tailed deer both were historically low for the third weekend of the general season.
The 2021 elk harvest reported at FWP’s Columbus check station remains strong with seven checked over the weekend, up from five in 2019 and an average of three.
While hunter numbers were down, those who went to the field over the weekend had close to average success. Of those who stopped at the check station, 29 percent had harvested game, compared to 30 percent in 2019 and a 20-year average of 38 percent.
Traffic through FWP’s Big Timber check station was nearly identical to 2019, but still well below the long-term average. More than half of checked hunters had harvested animals
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 99 hunters over the weekend, down only one from 2019. Hunters checked 20 white-tailed deer, up from 13 in 2019, and 20 mule deer, identical to two years ago. They checked four elk, down one from 2019 and a long-term average of seven. Of those who stopped at the check station, 53 percent had harvested an animal, up from 47 percent in 2019 and a long-term average of 50 percent.
The most notable statistic from FWP’s Big Timber check station is the decline in reported antelope harvested. So far this year, only 20 antelope have come through the check station compared to a long-term average of 64.
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Lavina check station over the weekend was better than in 2019, but still below the long-term average.
FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor checked 214 hunters, up from 157 in 2019, but below the long-term average of 254. Hunters had 13 white-tailed deer, up from eight two years ago but below the average of 15. Hunters checked 15 mule deer, up from 12 in 2019, but just half of the long-term average. Hunters checked 12 elk, down from 15 in 2019, but identical to the long-term average.
Of the hunters who stopped, 20 percent had harvest an animal, down from 22 percent in 2019 and below the long-term average of 25 percent
Traffic through the FWP check station in Billings Heights was slower than in 2019 by all measures during the third weekend of the general big-game season.
FWP wildlife biologist Megan O’Reilly counted 163 hunters, down from 172 in 2019. They had harvested seven white-tailed deer, down from 12 two years ago, and 23 mule deer, down from 43 in 2019. Elk hunters checked six harvested animals, down from 11 in 2019. Of those who stopped, 23 percent had harvested game, down from 40 percent two years ago.
Many hunters who stopped at the Billings Heights station reported seeing low numbers of mule deer and white-tailed deer.
The general deer and elk seasons runs through Nov. 28 and check stations will operate weekends at most locations until then. 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.