BILLINGS – Warm temperatures and moderate winds greeted south central Montana hunters over the weekend for the opening days of the state’s general rifle hunting season. The number of hunters and harvested animals counted at Fish, Wildlife & Parks check stations were mixed, but generally somewhat lower than in 2019. FWP did not operate check stations in 2020 because of COVID-19.
Here are some details from FWP’s four south central Montana check stations, operated both Saturday and Sunday of the opening weekend:
The 458 hunters who stopped at FWP’s Lavina check station over the weekend were the most since 2015, well ahead of the 381 from 2019 and 11 percent more than the long-term average of 413. Of those who stopped, 15 percent had harvested an animal – identical to the same weekend in 2019 but below the long-term average of 22 percent.
FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor said hunters checked 37 mule deer, compared to 13 two years ago and 19 percent above the long-term average. They had 12 white-tailed deer – just one fewer than the same weekend in 2019. Hunters had 14 elk, the fewest since 2013, 23 percent below the long-term average and 10 fewer than two years ago.
The number of hunters who stopped at FWP’s Billings Heights check station over the weekend was down from 2019, but those who stopped were more successful than two years ago.
FWP wildlife biologist Megan O’Reilly counted 337 hunters over two days, down from 434 in 2019 and jut shy of the average from the four years that the station has operated. Of those who stopped, 32 percent had harvested an animal, up from 26 percent in 2019 and the four-year average of 30 percent.
Hunters who stopped had 14 white-tailed deer, down slightly from 16 counted in 2019. They had 49 mule deer – down from 57 two years ago – and 27 elk – 11 fewer than in 2019. .The antelope harvest was a bright spot with 15 checked, 11 more than the same weekend in 2019.
In addition, 21 bird hunters stopped at the Billings Height check station.
The number of hunters who stopped at the FWP Columbus check station over the weekend was the smallest in more than 40 years. While the deer harvest was more than in 2019, it still was near a record low.
FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart checked 81 hunters, 29 fewer than in 2019 and 59 percent below the 21-year average. The hunters checked 14 mule deer, five more than in 2019, but still 65 percent below the long-term average and the second lowest opening-weekend count in more than 40 years. Hunters also brought 16 white-tailed deer through check station, nine of which were antlerless as hunters filled their B tags.
Stewart also checked five elk – down four from 2019 – and one antelope. Of the hunters who came through the Columbus check station, 44 percent had harvested an animal, well ahead of the 24 percent in 2019 and the best since 2012.
The biologists at FWP’s Big Timber check station saw the fewest opening-weekend hunters since the start of general hunting seasons moved from Sunday to Saturday in 2010. But those who stopped were relatively successful, with 46 percent of big game hunters taking home an animal, compared to an average of 43 percent.
FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 213 hunters Saturday and Sunday, down from 268 on the opening weekend in 2019 and the fewest since 2010. Those hunters had 21 white-tailed deer, down from 32 in 2019, and 42 mule deer, well above the 28 checked in 2019. They checked 23 elk, up from 17 two years ago. Antelope hunters checked 11 animals, the fewest on record for the opening weekend of the general season and below the 16 checked in 2019.
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.