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Long Awaited
'Opening Day' this Sunday

by Mike Thompson
Wildlife Biologist
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
October 22, 1998

This Sunday, October 25, is opening day of the general big game hunting season.

Of course, people have been hunting big game for quite some time already. Archers took to the field on September 5, and back-country rifle hunting for deer and elk began on September 15. Moose, sheep, goat and black bear seasons also opened on September 15 in most hunting districts. Elk hunting began on October 1 in Special Area 298, on mostly private land located east of the Game Range.

Still, when you talk about opening day of the general big game season, most Montana hunters know exactly what you mean. It's the fifth Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Besides, all those earlier opening days affect relatively few hunters. For example, consider Hunting District (HD) 285, which encompasses some 500 square miles of the Clearwater drainage located north of Highway 200. A few hundred hunters at most take advantage of the early archery-only season. There is no early "back-country hunt" in HD 285. Only two lucky hunters have moose permits for 285, and there is no sheep or goat hunting at all. Although quite a few hunters carry bear tags in their pockets, usually less than 10 percent report that they actually hunt for bears. Fewer than 400 hunters will have the opportunity to take advantage of Special Area 298 for an early elk.

All of these earlier opportunities combined affect few of the 2,000-3,000 big game hunters in HD 285 to whom this Sunday is the opening day that counts. It's the time that favorite elk holes open to any qualified Montana resident who walks up to a license agent and buys a license. It's the opener we can count on, that we point toward in our planning, scouting and practicing during the months preceding.

And, this season is shaping up to be a good one for finding elk and deer. Unlike the wet summer that allowed animals to scatter high and far last year, this past summer was hot and dry. As a result, expect elk and deer to be concentrated around moist pockets or in grassy parks. The early skiff of snow up high helped kick some animals out of the high country, which should improve opening day odds for those of us who are aerobically challenged.

Although I would predict that hunters will see more game than they did last year, I'm afraid this may not translate into more meat in the freezer for many families. Don't take this as a commentary on your marksmanship. It's just that we're still dealing with the aftermath of the winter of 1997, and although deer and elk populations appear to be recovering on schedule, numbers of adult animals are still down.

As a result, deer and elk hunting regulations in HD 285 are as restrictive as they've been in 20 years. And, it's no coincidence that our last struggle against harsh winter weather also occurred 20 years ago.

For the first time in many years, there will be no hunting for antlerless whitetails or antlerless mule deer in HD 285, nor in most of northwest Montana. The traditional eight-day season for either-sex deer has been abandoned this year in districts generally lying north of the Blackfoot (including HD 292), and possibly for another one or more years in the future, to improve deer survival and speed recovery from the winterkill that occurred in 1997.

We're seeing more deer this year than last, but many of these are fawns from the first decent production we've had in three years. Numbers of adult does, whether mule deer or white-tailed deer, remain lower than normal.

The local elk population is on the increase, but at a slower rate than planned because of the hard winter. So, numbers of antlerless permits in HD 285, and the Game Range, have remained conservatively low for longer than we anticipated a few years ago.

And, just like last year, don't be surprised if you're not seeing many young bucks and bulls. Even though we had a mild winter last year, this bit of good fortune could not make up for the low initial birth rates we experienced in the spring of 1997, again due to the hard winter of 1997. Even though we've seen a surprisingly high number of older bucks and bulls this past spring and summer, the young antlered bucks and bulls that usually make up the bulk of the harvest are depressed in numbers this year.

Still, it will be good to get out and see what can be found. Speaking of what may be found, let me offer a word to the wise among you who are carrying black bear licenses, "just in case." Black bears are not the only bears that are at low elevations, looking hard for food this year. Your odds of bumping into a grizzly may be unusually high this season. Black bear hunters must be even more careful than usual to verify the species of bear before deciding to shoot, and all hunters should be alert to avoid unwanted close encounters with grizzlies.

This might be a good year to spend a little extra time watching the pine squirrels and gray jays. Make sure your kids notice, too!

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