White-tailed deer numbers soaring

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White-tailed deer are doing well in Northwest Montana — so much so that state wildlife managers believe the population could double within the next two to three years.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ 2016 Wildlife Status Update, released last week, reports that spring surveys of whitetails show a continuation of the general upward trend since their numbers took a hit from several rough winters leading up to 2010.

Neil Anderson, wildlife manager for Northwest Montana Region One, said that expected increase factored into the state agency’s 2015-16 hunting regulations, which were finalized in February.

Starting this fall, Region One hunters will have more opportunities to hunt white-tailed deer, including either-sex hunting during the first and last weeks of the season and antlerless deer harvest in the Kuhns Wildlife Management Area north of Kalispell.

“This was an effort to kind of open it up, anticipating that that population was going to continue to grow,” Anderson said. “Maybe guys who just want to put some meat in the freezer will take a go and maybe not harvest a small buck.”

This spring’s surveys found that high recruitment rates (the ratio of adults to the number of fawns that survived the winter) show the population likely will continue to increase.

The Swan Valley posted the biggest gain in recruitment rates from 2015 to 2016, increasing from a four-year low of 30 fawns per 100 adults to more than 50 this spring. Kalispell-area recruitment remained the highest, where hunting districts 120, 132 and 170 averaged about 57 fawns per 100 adults.

Hunting districts near Eureka, Libby, the North Fork and Thompson Falls posted recruitment rates above 35 fawns per adult, the point at which a population is expected to increase.

The only declines from 2015 were in the Libby and Thompson Falls areas, but recruitment was still in the lower 40s and upper 30s, respectively.

The report, however, confirms the frustrations of local mule deer hunters.

Survey data for mulies are spotty, due in part to their preferred habitat of dense timber cover, but the report’s overall conclusion points to a continuation of declines seen in the past eight to 10 years.

“One encouraging thing is we’re seeing good recruitment for the last couple years,” Anderson said. “But I don’t think we have enough years of really good recruitment to say the population is increasing right now.”

Recruitment ratios of more than 40 fawns per 100 adults were documented in the Whitefish Mountains and Thompson Falls area, while the Fisher River had fallen from more than 50 in 2014 to just over 20 this year.

Habitat changes and predation are believed to be behind an overall decline in the region’s mule deer during the past decade. Anderson added that mule deer also may be out-competed for resources where their habitat overlaps with populations of white-tailed deer.

Elk numbers are similarly difficult to obtain, but seem to be improving.

Recruitment of elk calves more than doubled from last year in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Thompson Falls posted modest gains.

Still, Anderson said of the four districts surveyed this year for elk, only one of them — Hunting District 121 near Thompson Falls — showed the population was increasing.

Last year’s surveys of bighorn sheep show mixed results. The Paradise area and Wild Horse Island populations are generally healthy, but Anderson remained concerned about sheep in the North Clark Fork and Cabinet Mountains.

He said the North Clark Fork herd fell from 106 in 2005 to about 30 during the previous count. Biologists counted more than 50 sheep last year.

“Those numbers are back up now. It’s a good, positive trend, but we’re not back up to where we were before,” he said.

For the full report, visit fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices/hunting/pn_0060.html.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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