There were more hunters out on opening weekend for antelope, and they enjoyed better success rates than last season, according to reports from three Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks check stations set up in Region 7.
It was a relatively mild opener weather-wise, contrasted by dropping temperatures and snowfall on the following Monday night and Tuesday.
Hunter and harvest numbers were up at all three check stations set up Sunday in Hysham, Broadus and Mosby (near Jordan). A total of 302 hunters passed through the checkpoints on opening weekend, with 172 antelope.
“Hunters coming through the check stations confirmed what we were already thinking,” said Region 7 Biologist Steve Atwood, referring to recent FWP surveys indicating that antelope populations are doing well.
Results from summer aerial antelope surveys and early spring ground-based surveys show that antelope numbers continue to rise across much of the region, as they have since low observations in 2012. Survey trend areas cover more than 1,000 miles. Antelope have enjoyed several years of good recruitment and minimal over-winter mortality. Early spring yearling recruitment is above the long-term average, and summer fawn production is healthy. The population is shifting back to a younger and more reproductive age composition.
Summer surveys indicate total observed numbers have increased 86 percent since 2012 and are just below the 10-year average. The buck-to-doe ratio exceeds the 10-year average at 56 per 100.
Based on these observations and landowner feedback, FWP proposed and was granted quota changes for this season. The region-wide, either-sex license quota was raised from 5,000 to 7,500, and the doe-fawn license quota went from 100 to 1,500. Having more hunters accounts for some of the increase in harvest rates, Atwood said, but populations also continue to rebound from a tough cycle.
In general, antelope numbers are expected to be strongest in the southeastern portion of the region, while northwest herds are still recovering. Across the region, hunters seemed to be having very good success, he said, noting that a lot of animals came out of the Terry, Ekalaka and Hysham areas.
For Atwood, the check station results support the regionwide license system over establishing smaller individual hunting districts. If hunters have limited success in one area, FWP is able to direct them to an area with better opportunities.
Atwood said early reports are that bird numbers are down from last year, and there were a lot of bird hunters out on opening weekend. Some of that could be attributed to the loss of Conservation Reserve Program lands in the prairie states including Montana. The loss of CRP is of consequence in terms of habitat and ultimately bird numbers, but it also appears that there has been a shift in out-of-state bird hunters seeking bird hunting opportunities in eastern Montana.
Broadus check station
Region 7 Biologist Ryan Devore had very positive feedback from hunters coming through the Broadus check station Sunday.
“Hunters seemed extremely thrilled with the number of antelope and mule deer they are seeing in the area,” Devore said. “Only one guy didn’t find that many antelope. Sounds like a lot of hunting pressure in the Alzada area.”
Devore was assisted by Non-game Biologist Brandi Skone and Warden Tim Fawell.
The Broadus station saw 23 hunting parties, with an 87 percent success rate. Hunter numbers were up substantially, compared to just five parties in both 2014 and 2015. One group focused solely on upland game birds, without finding many, while the rest were after antelope, and a couple archers also sought deer.
Of the 48 individual hunters who came through, 30 were successful. Thirty-three antelope were harvested (29 bucks, four does), along with one Hungarian partridge.
Forty-one hunters had an opportunity to harvest the game they were pursuing, and all but one of the 48 were satisfied with their hunt.
Mosby check station
“Hunter traffic was pretty steady all afternoon,” said Regional Wildlife Manager John Ensign. “Happy hunters – no real complaints at all … we had a mix of hunters, primarily antelope hunters, and most were successful. There were a few archery elk hunters and a handful of bird hunters. All in all, a good day.”
Region 7 Biologist Jesse Kolar had similar observations. “Overall, most hunters had opportunities, and most added that they saw lots of deer,” he said. “The only unsatisfied pronghorn hunters were a father/son who harvested a 12-inch and a 14-inch buck. There were a few comments that there were too many hunters.”
The Mosby station received 32 antelope hunters in 15 parties, and all but one of the parties had opportunities. Twenty-five antelope were harvested – 19 bucks and six does. Four elk hunters all had opportunities, but none harvested an elk.
“Archery elk hunters sounded like they were getting into elk, but just not getting the shot they wanted,” Kolar said.
Seven upland game bird hunters harvested nine pheasants, according to Kolar. “Overall, bird hunters had a tough time finding birds, but most were understanding and satisfied with what they found.”
Hysham check station
Hysham saw the largest number of hunters come through on Sunday, with 122 parties and 211 hunters. They checked an impressive 114 antelope – up from 75 on the same weekend last year – for an 85 percent success rate. Only 85 parties and 163 hunters passed through in 2015, 75 percent with game.
“There were some really nice bucks coming through the Hysham check station,” Atwood said.
Harvest rates were down a bit in areas north of Hysham and Forsyth, Atwood said, mirroring survey results that show antelope are still recovering there. Populations are estimated at about 70 percent of the long-term average. Antelope density is still low in comparison to 10-12 years ago. In 2005, more than seven antelope were observed per square mile, while about two were observed this past summer.
“It’s not where they were a dozen years ago, but there are signs of population recovery,” he said. “The total count was up 42 percent from 2014, and the number of fawns was indicative of a population that is increasing.”