Mule deer bucks are making a comeback in the southern reaches of the Bitterroot Valley.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Craig Jourdonnais said sportsmen can take some credit in making that so.
"Hunters have supported restrictions on their opportunity to hunt mule deer and it's making a difference," he said.
Jourdonnais completed annual aerial surveys on mule deer populations in the two southern hunting districts after the state's big game season closed.
In the West Fork of the Bitterroot, he counted 223 deer between Waugh and Gilbert creeks, which was close to the most that he's seen since monitoring flights began four years ago.
Even more encouraging was the number of bucks he spotted from his helicopter seat.
Four years ago, there were three bucks for every 100 does in the area.
In effort to increase those numbers, the state first required hunters to obtain a permit to hunt in the area. There was no limit on the number of permits, but hunters were required to give up their option to hunt in other permitted areas around the state.
Two years ago, the number of permits was limited to 125 and the ratio jumped to 13 bucks per 100 does. This past year, the number of permits dropped to 80.
After the season ended, Jourdonnais counted 27 bucks per 100 does.
"The last two years have made a big difference in the survival of bucks," Jourdonnais said. "We're not trying to create another HD 270. We're trying to get those buck numbers closer to 10 to 20 per 100 does."
Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association President Tony Jones said the turnaround in the West Fork has been incredible.
"It shows you what a little bit of restrictions can accomplish," Jones said. "Sportsmen of the Bitterroot have always been supportive of these kinds of efforts. Any time the department has come to the Bitterroot hunter and asked for something based on a need to protect the resource, they've been willing to give up their opportunities if it means doing the right thing for the resource."
As soon as the bucks begin to mature and there is more stability in the herd, Jones said sportsmen and the state will start talking about increasing the number of permits.
"It's great when we finally see some positive news from the Bitterroot," Jones said.
The good news didn't stop in the West Fork of the Bitterroot.
Just across the highway in hunting district 270, mule deer numbers were down by 20 percent over the long-term average. Jourdonnais counted 1,397 deer.
But that wasn't the overall number that caught Jourdonnais' eye.
"The quality and number of mature bucks that I saw was just exceptional," he said. "On Beef Ridge, it was just lights out. It was bouncing between 50 to 100 bucks per 100 does."
Again, Jourdonnais credits sportsmen's support as a chief factor in helping mule buck numbers grow.
Four years ago, the state dropped the number of mule deer buck permits in HD 270 from 100 to 45. Sportsmen overwhelming supported the cut in permits.
"They told us that if they were going to make the sacrifice in opportunity to grow large buck deer, then they wanted to be sure that they went far enough to make that happen," Jourdonnais said. "We're certainly seeing the value in the way that is playing out on the ground with the number of big mature bucks that we're seeing."
"It's hard to think that this area doesn't rival some of the best mule deer hunting areas around the western United States now," he said. "It's nice to have some success stories in the face of everything else that we're facing here."
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.