Great Hunting Enjoyed
by Fewer Hunters

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder



November 16, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana


While patronizing a local business last Friday, the proprietor asked me if I thought the next owner of Plum Creek lands would reopen the roads that Plum Creek closed in the mid-1990s, and restore vehicular access for hunters.

His point was not to pick on Plum Creek Timber Company. He just wanted me to know his explanation for the decline in his retail sales during the past five hunting seasons.

I don't know if he's right about road closures keeping big game hunters out of the field. But, data from Bonner Check Station do support his observation that hunting participation in the Blackfoot drainage has declined every year since 1995. And, data through the third week of this hunting season indicate we haven't found the bottom yet. The latest hunter numbers at Bonner (4,909 through November 12) are down more than 40%, compared with similar data from 1995, and are on pace with the lowest recorded at Bonner since 1982.

At a time when our society seems obsessed with public opinion polls, it's hard to ignore this one. By their declining participation in big game hunting in the Blackfoot, hunters are sending a powerful message.

If only we knew how to read it.

It's certainly plausible that an aging hunting public may be discouraged by the abrupt and widespread reduction in open roads that occurred across corporate timber lands in western Montana in the mid-1990s. It's not that there still aren't plenty of open roads for hunters to drive. But, maybe it matters that the remaining open roads don't go to the favorite places where many people would like to hunt.

So, maybe the people affected by road closures have found other places to hunt, or they go hunting lessif at all. Any of these possibilities could explain the losses felt by the merchant I visited last week, and the declines in hunter trips documented at Bonner Check Station.

But, there are other possibilities, too.

The decline in hunter participation also corresponds with a period of changing and increasingly restrictive regulations governing the harvest of deer across western Montana. We went from a period of abundant mule deer and overabundant white-tailed deer in the early 1990s to a period of substantially lowered populations of both species in the late 1990s. The traditional 8-day season for deer of either species, either sex, allowed many families to count on putting venison in the freezer every year, and gave young hunters a good chance of exercising the skills practiced in hunter education classes. And, there were various opportunities for hunters to kill two or more white-tailed deer each year. But, over the past few years, opportunities to hunt mule deer bucks have been restricted (first by the "validation" regulation, and now by permit-only hunting in certain districts), and the killing of antlerless mule deer and white-tailed deer has largely been eliminated in the Blackfoot.

With white-tailed bucks serving as the meat and potatoes quarry for the average big game hunter in the Blackfoot these days, hunters find themselves waiting for the rut in the middle to end of November. Or, they put a higher priority on an early fall trip to eastern Montana, where regulations are less restrictive and deer are easier to find.

We've also seen a decline in numbers of special big-game licenses issued for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range, in Hunting District 282. For a period in the early 1990s, FWP was issuing 200 special licenses annually for this highly coveted, permit-only district, which attracted successful applicants from Kalispell, Great Falls and other areas of Montana. Since the mid-1990s, only 50 special licenses have been awarded each yearto allow the elk population to rebuild. One unintended effect may have been a reduction in business for the merchants who provide food and lodging for these out-of-area hunters.

For someone in my line of work, it is encouraging and somewhat surprising to see national statistics that indicate hunter numbers are steady to increasing across the country. I say it's surprising because it seems that young adults and their children have many other activities on their plates these days. After all, hunting is a pursuit that requires practice, discipline, patience, physical conditioning, and a long attention span. In a nutshell, it requires time. And, for many folks there just isn't enough.

Add weather to the mix and you can forget any single, simple explanation. Hunters will confirm that weather in the Blackfoot over the past several hunting seasons has given every advantage to the hunted. Either there was no snow or it was crusted and crunchy. Temperatures tended to be mild, leaving elk and deer scattered clear to their highest summer ranges. A lot of people surely gave up early when hunting season never really felt like hunting season.

In the near future, FWP may have a chance to test these and other theories that might explain the recent decline in hunting interest in the Blackfoot. With white-tailed deer numbers on the rise, and mule deer increasing steadily but more slowly, FWP hopes to liberalize deer hunting regulations to match observed population trends. The Game Range elk herd is also growing slowly and steadilymaybe enough to support more hunting pressure in another year or two.

This season may be a fair test of the weather theory. Although it began with mild weather, we're now experiencing the best snow conditions in quite some time. We'll see how hunter numbers respond this coming weekend.

The bottom line is, much of this is out of management control. FWP doesn't control weather or the kids' schedules of school activities. Even hunting regulations must be set somewhat independently of their effects on hunting opportunities to protect our wildlife resources when their numbers are down.

But, the factors that are within FWP's control may be important factors to address. With public support, we could respond more quickly with liberalized hunting regulations as soon as wildlife population trends would support them. And, we could sit down with land managers to discuss road closures and possibilities for reopening some roads in hunting season.

It would help to know more about what matters to you when you wake up in the morning and decide whether to hunt. If you decide to do something else, is it because of something FWP is or isn't doing? Or, is it just that you haven't had enough sleep the week before and you've made other plans with your family for later in the day?

Next time I see you, let me know what you think.

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