January 13, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
The winter of 1996-97 is finally over.
Oh, the snow from that unusually long winter finally melted quite some time ago. But, the effects on white-tailed deer populations lingered for at least fifteen months after the first buttercups emerged in the spring of '97.
Now, with whitetails showing strong signs of recovery after two mild winters and three years of low hunting harvest, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) proposes to put one of its "emergency" hunting restrictions to rest.
Specifically, FWP proposes to resume the traditional 8-day either-sex season for white-tailed deer in Fall 2000. This would apply to most FWP hunting districts from the Blackfoot and lower Clark Fork Valleys to Canada, and from the Continental Divide to Idaho. Either-sex hunting for whitetails would begin October 22, 2000 and would run through October 29. The general season would continue through Thanksgiving weekend, but only antlered whitetails could be legally harvested after the first 8 days.
What do you think about it? Come tell us when FWP holds public meetings at the Seeley Lake Community Center on January 18 (7:00 P. M.) and Lambkins of Lincoln on January 20 (5:30 P.M.).
Just three short years ago, FWP presided over a harvest of an estimated 3,289 white-tailed does and fawns across 9 hunting districts in the Blackfoot and lower Clark Fork drainages in FWP Region 2. At that time, FWP had been issuing hundreds of B-tags annually in most districts, which gave hunters an opportunity to kill a second antlerless whitetail. Numbers of white-tailed deer were near modern-day highs, and quite a bit of discussion revolved around potential habitat damage on key winter ranges.
Then came winter.
In the spring of 1997, FWP deer surveys verified that fawn survival was about 40% lower than normal. We responded with a drastic reduction in numbers of B-tags issued for 1997, which reduced the harvest of does and fawns that fall by 66%. This reduction was accomplished with the 8-day either-sex season still in place.
In 1998, FWP managers took the extra precaution of closing the either-sex season. Although it seemed likely that the white-tailed deer population would recover, even if the either-sex season remained in place, FWP biologists and managers agreed to give the deer every possible advantage. We saw no point in slowing the initial recovery of deer populations, and we didn't want to take the chance of exceptional hunting weather and a high kill that fall. And, for good measure, FWP left the either-sex season closed in 1999 as well.
Mother Nature couldn't have conjured up a better recipe for ideal results. With such high moisture in spring-summer 1997, whitetails found excellent forage to recover body condition before the next winter. The winter of 1997-98 was plenty mild, and the winter of 1998-99 was milder still on deer winter ranges. Hunting conditions in 1998 and 1999 gave deer every possible advantage over human predators. Even this winter got off to a slow start, which was more good news for white-tailed deer.
The deer have responded. In late winter, 1999, FWP biologists documented that unusually high numbers of fawns had survived. As expected, numbers of yearling bucks harvested in Region 2 jumped last fall, despite the difficult hunting conditions. Fawn production last spring and summer appeared normal and so far there is no reason to expect undue mortality this winter. Whitetails are reappearing in familiar places (like barrow pits!) where they haven't been seen since the hard winter.
While whitetails are on the upswing, they are not yet at the high levels we witnessed in the early to mid 1990s. That's why FWP recommends a gradual application of antlerless harvest, starting with the 8-day either-sex season first. We'll wait and see how things go before issuing B-tags for additional antlerless harvest in future years. With a conservative harvest of antlerless whitetails this fall, the population will almost certainly continue its increase, but at a moderated rate. Moderation in the deer increase will give shrubs and conifers a little extra time to recover and reproduce before whitetail numbers reach another peak.
White-tailed bucks are cheering this proposal. Biologists have been concerned that closing the either-sex hunting season in 1998-99 would concentrate all the hunting pressure on bucks. This would be expected to reduce numbers of older bucks in the population, especially if it continued for very long. A prompt return to some either-sex hunting this fall will spread out harvest pressure again and allow more bucks to escape.
It's another milestone on the road back from the winter of 1996-97. We hope to see you at the upcoming Seeley Lake or Lincoln meetings if you'd like to talk it over.