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Hunting season forecast for Northwest Montana similar to last year's

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | September 24, 2023 12:00 AM

As the start of the general hunting season nears, experts predict hunters will see conditions and opportunities similar to 2022 in Northwest Montana.

“Overall, I think we are pretty stable,” said Neil Anderson, Region 1 Wildlife Manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “It should be pretty similar to last year across the region.”

And that’s good news for the region’s avid hunters, say some local sportsmen.

“Everyone seems to be pretty optimistic,” said Aaron Agosto, the Flathead Valley board member of Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, though he admitted that excitement tends to build in September regardless of the outlook on the hunting season.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released its 2023 hunting season forecast at the end of August, an analysis of animal numbers, ground conditions and tips for successful hunting. General big game season opens Oct. 21, but archery season is already underway.

The big game forecast, organized by region and by animal, alludes to a similar hunting season to last year’s.

“Big game recruitment in Northwest Montana varied after last winter, particularly for white-tailed deer,” the forecast found. Snow conditions were highly variable with an early snow and hardpack conditions that persisted through much of the winter.

Still, the overall population of white-tailed deer should be stable to increasing across the region, according to the state agency. While hunters should see a fair number of bucks across the region due to three years of solid recruitment, a possible decline could occur in areas where fawn survival was lower.

Recruitment refers to the addition of animals to the population, whether by migration or births.

Elk numbers are pretty similar to last year, Anderson said, as calf survival was successful overall. White-tails, on the other hand, are a little more spotty after the harsh winter, according to Anderson. He noted that some areas south of Eureka had unsuccessful fawn survival, leading to lower numbers.

As for elk in Region 1, the number is up from previous years but not indicative of an increasing population. Hunters are advised to find areas in the backcountry, away from roads and high hunting pressures.

Likewise, mule deer numbers in the region should prove similar to last year, with stable and slightly increasing numbers. Moose numbers are relatively stable, although currently lower than historic averages.

Black bear numbers may be down across Region 1 after high harvests in both 2021 and 2022. Hunters should seek places with a lot of food sources, state officials recommended. Those successful in finding a bear must submit a premolar tooth, sex of the bear, bear management unit number and general location of the harvest.

Northwest Montana has “abundant wolf numbers and recent population estimates indicate a slightly declining wolf population,” the forecast found. Populations appear to be healthy, state officials said. Hunters are encouraged to check regulations to stay up to date with changes made by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which lowered the quota to 313 wolves from last year’s 450.

That commission also approved an increased harvest of mountain lions this season.

WHILE GAME numbers appear stable regionally, some hunters are concerned that Northwest Montana isn’t the same as hunting farther east.

“We are looking forward to a good year. Most of our hunting, almost all of our hunting, is done on the east side of the divide,” said Rich Birdsell, the owner and outfitter of Northern Rockies Outfitters in Kalispell.

Conditions in the east, despite a drought and a harsh winter that affected big game species, are improving and are considerably better than previous years, the state wildlife officials said. Central Montana boasts good numbers of white-tailed deer and elk whereas Western Montana is somewhat limited when it comes to mule deer and elk.

From Birdsell’s perspective, opportunities to bag game animals in the region are limited.

“It’s a little bit of a downer in Northwest Montana because our game populations are so low currently,” Birdsell said, arguing for better predator management in the region.

On the other hand, weather conditions looked favorable, much cooler and wetter than many anticipated. Birdsell is looking forward to getting into the woods without worrying about fire danger. Agosto similarly welcomed the arrival of autumn weather, saying he expected a hot and dry start to the season.

“I am really enjoying the cooler weather temperatures, it seems like it's getting elk and deer up and moving a little earlier than they were last year,” Agosto said.

Other sportsmen and women took the changing weather as a promising sign. Erin Soucek, a hunter and marketing coordinator at Whitefish’s FORLOH, an outdoor clothing and equipment store, offered high hopes.

“I think we’re going to have a good year for hunting,” Soucek said, pointing to the cool late September air.

And where some hunters worry about a lack of opportunity in finding game animals, Soucek looks forward to the challenge it presents.

“My favorite thing about hunting in Montana, especially here in the northwest, is the challenge,” said Soucek, who originally hails from Wisconsin. “This is not easy country.”

The vastness of the landscape and the amount of public opportunities make Montana hunting even better, Agosto said.

As hunting season unfolds, Agosto encourages hunters to remember to be a good neighbor. A big thing, according to Agosto, is to make sure that people respect valued resources.

“I just encourage folks to get out and get into the field,” Anderson said. “It’s a great time of year, get out, enjoy it and be safe.”

For more information regarding the current hunting season, including dates and statistics, can be found at https://fwp.mt.gov/homepage/news/2023/aug/0830---2023-big-game-hunting-forecast.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

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A mule deer buck lays down on a hillside at Wild Horse Island State Park on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 in this file photo. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake FILE)

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Two young mule deer graze on a grassy slope at Wild Horse Island State Park on Thursday, Sept. 19., 2019 in this file photo. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake FILE)