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Weather Dictates
Hunting Conditions

by Mike Thompson
Wildlife Biologist
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
October 29, 1998


Weather usually makes the critical difference between a hunting season when the odds favor hunters, and one when the animals gain advantage.

Unfortunately for those of us who fantasize about managing hunting seasons and animal survival rates within hunted wildlife populations, we have to take the weather as it comes. We plan, scheme and set regulations based on the best available information and intuition. But, once the hunting season arrives, all bets are off.

This year, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has been preparing hunters for low numbers of adult deer in populations around Seeley Lake and low numbers of young antlered bucks.

But, it's nothing that a big dump of snow wouldn't cure.

No, snow doesn't grow bucks, but it does make them easier to find by stimulating them to move lower in elevation, toward hunters, leaving tracks for hunters to find all along the way.

Only a few years ago, southwest Montana was buffeted by just such a snowstorm during hunting season and the result was astounding. Hunter success rates soared in the Bozeman area and elk harvests far exceeded any pre-season predictions. I heard from alarmed people who were afraid that all the big bulls would be killed in one fell swoop.

It truly was a season that hunters hardly dare to dream about.

Mother Nature gives, but can just as easily steal favors away. Just a year or two before the harsh winter of 1997, elk populations in western Montana were at or near twentieth century highs. But, weather conditions conspired against hunters.

I recall that the winter snowpack melted early that spring, and the summer was wet. As a result, elks scattered all over the country and found adequate forage wherever they lived. All but the most skillful and ambitious hunters would have needed a fall snowstorm to even the odds, but it never came. And, in the face of record high elk numbers, I fielded numerous phone calls from hunters who were convinced that elk populations had crashed.

Such is the power of the weather over our abilities to find elk and deer during hunting season.

The 1996 hunting season was especially quirky. Although we had a wet summer and animals were scattered, we did get a good snowfall for hunting season. But, the snow crusted so badly that deer and elk could hear hunters in the woods from the time they left their vehicles in the morning until the time they drove off in frustration a couple hours later. Snow can be good, but crusted snow is most certainly bad.

The mild conditions of last hunting season, coupled with a wet summer, drove hunter success rates down. We fielded plenty of complaints about deer populations, and in this case, hunters' observations correlated well with the surveys of FWP biologists. The hard winter of 1997 had taken a toll on deer. However, I also heard from plenty of folks who were sure that the hard winter had taken far more elk than I had reported earlier. To my relief, when the hunters went home and the elk came to the Game Range later that winter, all of the expected elk were present and accounted for.

Weather and hunting pressure are such powerful influences on our abilities to gauge elk and deer populations during fall that it is practically impossible to reliably determine whether animal numbers are going up, down or sideways based on observations made during hunting season.

That's why companies can make a living selling radio transmitters for deer and elk to wildlife management agencies, and it's why we count elk and deer from a helicopter in mid-winter. These are ways biologists adjust the odds in their favor while conducting surveys.

Hunters don't have these means at their disposal to increase their odds of success. So, we take the weather as it comes. And, it's part of the challenge of hunting to respond with appropriate strategies as weather conditions change.

At least, that's what I say when I've got a frustrated hunter on the line.

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