COLUMN: Big hunting meeting coming up on Jan. 9

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If you are a hunter, mark Jan. 9 on your 2016 calendar.

That is the date of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biennial public meeting for setting 2016 and 2017 hunting seasons.

This is always a fun meeting where hunters and Fish, Wildlife and Parks can interact.

The meeting is in the Arts and Technology Building at the Flathead Community College. From 9 to 10 a.m., there is an open house where hunters can speak directly with state biologists. At 10 a.m., the formal public meeting starts.

You can go up to the microphone and speak directly to state folks, our Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioner Gary Wolfe and other hunters. You can also submit written comments and comment online.

There usually is a wide range of public opinions voiced at these meetings. Fish, Wildlife and Parks has the impossible job of trying to answer to many masters. Usually, the agency is on the hot seat at these meetings.

You can go online to see what changes are proposed.  

If you go online to view the new hunting regulations, be sure to have your 2015 copy of the hunting regulations at your side. Essentially, what you will find online are only the proposed hunting season changes from 2015. For Region 1 (Northwest Montana), the biggest change will be to allow either-sex deer hunting for whitetails for the first eight days of the seasons in 2016 and 2017. During the last several years, doe hunting has been very restricted to allow the deer herd to rebuild after a couple of tough winters.

Eliminating doe hunting has both good and bad attributes. Not shooting does allow more does in the population to be around next spring to drop fawns.

This builds the overall deer herd. The negative side of not shooting does is that all hunting pressure is on the bucks and bucks are overharvested. After bucks have been hammered for the last three to four years, the buck population is really down.

Last fall, a day of hunting in Northwest Montana usually produced several sightings of does and fawns, but no bucks. After reopening the doe season in 2016, it will take several years to rebuild a healthy population of mature bucks.

Whitetail deer harvests have declined severely over the past 25 years. Some of that decline is due to occasional tough winters, but I think most of the decline is due to the loss of high-quality deer habitat and too many four-legged predators. Fish, Wildlife and Parks data for Northwest Montana indicates that annual whitetail deer harvests from 1991-1996, ranged from 14,500 to 18,500 deer per year.

Recent harvest levels have been around 8,500 to 10,000 deer per year.  Hunter numbers have declined from about 29,000 in the early ’90s to 24,000 to 26,000 in recent years, so hunter numbers have held up better than deer harvest levels. Deer harvest levels will increase next year if we have a decent winter and have a doe season.           

But the long-term increase in deer numbers and hunter success ratios will require the harvesting of more timber on public land to promote lush new nutritious growth that is the staple food of whitetail deer.

As one Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist told me, whitetail deer carry their winter range on their backs. What he meant was the lush growth of young forest land vegetation produces food that creates thick layers of fat to carry deer through Northwest Montana’s harsh winters. Less logging on public forest lands has reduced the quality of our deer habitat. Also, having hundreds of wolves running around eating deer 24/7 has also impacted our deer herds.   

Mule deer hunting in 2016 and 2017 will continue to be limited to bucks only.

For most elk hunting districts in Northwest Montana, elk hunting in 2016 and 2017 will remain largely unchanged from 2015, generally be limited to brow-tined bulls. In addition, most elk hunting districts will include 25 special permits for antlerless or cow elk hunting. My understanding is that most elk hunting districts in Northwest Montana are below state elk management objectives.

If that is correct, why kill any mother elk? Every cow elk killed represents one less elk calf born in the spring. So the herd rebuilds more slowly.

The elk brought through Fish, Wildlife and Parks check stations in the last couple of years is only half the number of elk brought through the check stations in 2010 and 2011. So it seems prudent to eliminate all cow elk hunting, including the archery season, if Fish, Wildlife and Parks wants to really increase the elk herd.

See you on the 9th! Have a safe and Happy New Year. Enjoy some ice fishing, but be careful of thin ice.

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