BILLINGS – Warm temperatures, light winds and plenty of sunshine made for comfortable outdoor activities over the weekend in south central Montana, but they did not do much for hunting success during the general big game opener.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists operated five check stations throughout the region Saturday and Sunday. All reported that hunters told them temperature in the 60s and 70s limited harvest opportunities.
Montana’s five-week general deer and elk season runs through Nov. 25.
At the Columbus check station, FWP wildlife biologist Shawn Stewart checked 192 hunters, more than the 167 checked during the same weekend in 2017, but still below the long-term average of 203. Thirty percent of those who stopped had game, down slightly from 33 percent in 2017 and a long-term average of 36 percent.
The mule deer harvest measured at Columbus was well below last year and the second lowest since 1980. Stewart checked 22 mule deer, down ten from opening weekend in 2017 and near half of the long-term average of 42. The 23 white-tailed deer checked was nearly double last year’s harvest of 12 and one better than the long-term average of 22. Five hunters checked elk, down from 11 last year and an average of six.
At Laurel, FWP wildlife research specialist Jay Watson checked 154 hunters, up from 128 in 2017 but still below the long-term average of 193. Twenty percent of checked hunters had harvested game, down from 26 percent a year ago and well below the long-tern average of 33 percent.
The deer harvest measured at Laurel was down from the same weekend in 2017 with 11 white-tailed deer checked – down four from a year ago and the long-term average of 19. The 15 mule deer checked was the smallest number since at least 1999, down two from last year and well below the long-term average of 40. Hunters checked four elk, which is near average for opening weekend at the Laurel check station.
At Big Timber, FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh checked 343 hunters, down from 357 last year but still well ahead of the long-term average of 228. The number of hunters reporting to the Big Timber check station during the past two years has been the highest on record for the opening weekend of general big game season. Of those checked this past weekend, 42 percent had harvested game, down from 49 percent last year and only slightly lower than the long-term average of 43.
The 37 white-tailed deer checked at Big Timber was up from 26 in 2017 and nearly double the long-term average of 19. While the mule-deer harvest of 47 animals was down sharply from 62 reported during the same weekend last year, it remained well ahead of the long-term average of 33. The number of elk checked remains strong with 28 harvested, down from 37 during opening weekend in 2017, but ahead of an average of 12.
The Billings check station was open for just the second year. Over the weekend, FWP wildlife biologist Megan O’Reilly checked 393 hunters, down from 434 a year ago. Of those who stopped, 29 percent had harvested game compared to 34 percent during the same weekend in 2017.
Hunters checked nine white-tailed deer – down two from a year ago – and 49 mule deer – down from 78 in 2017. An additional 16 deer were checked at Billings but not classified by species. Hunters also checked 29 elk, down from 41 during opening weekend in 2017.
At Lavina, FWP wildlife biologist Ashley Taylor checked 396 hunters, down from 437 a year ago and a long-term average of 414. Eighteen percent of hunters who stopped at Lavina over the weekend had harvested animals – the same as in 2017 and down from a long-term average of 25 percent.
The overall deer harvest reported at Lavina was down from last year and well below the long-term average. Hunters checked seven white-tailed deer – down from nine a year ago and an average of 31. Hunters checked 29 mule deer, down from 32 in 2017 and a long-term average of 40. Elk harvest remained a bright spot with 26 checked – down seven from the same weekend a year ago, but well ahead of the long-term average of 14.
Game wardens saw an uptick in illegally killed spike elk in hunting district 540 northwest of Harlowton, where regulations changed from last year. They reminded sportsmen to read the printed regulations for the areas where they are hunting to check for changes from previous years.
Biologists reminded hunters that FWP continues to monitor eastern Carbon County for chronic wasting disease. Special transportation restrictions apply to any deer, elk and moose harvested in that area. Specifics about the disease, maps and restrictions are in the printed hunting regulations as well as on the FWP website, http://fwp.mt.gov.
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.