With snow slow to arrive this so far this hunting season, fewer Bitterroot elk hunters have filled their freezers as compared to the same time last year.
So far, 95 elk have come through the Darby hunter check station. By this time last year, biologists had checked through 112 elk.
“The cool, wet weather has helped hunters a little bit,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Rebecca Mowry. “We could still use some more snow. While there is a little bit at the higher elevations, it’s not quite enough to push elk out of the Big Hole.”
At this time last year, the Snotel site on Saddle Mountain in the Bitterroot Range recorded 26 inches of snow. Last weekend, it had 5 inches.
In the southern reaches of the Bitterroot, a heavy snow drives elk from their summer ranges in the Big Hole Valley to the more open hillsides of the East Fork where they are more vulnerable to hunters.
Mowry said that annual migration hasn’t started yet this fall.
“We are kind of hearing the same thing from hunters that we’ve heard all along this hunting season,” she said. “Some people are getting into them and others aren’t seeing a single one. They are either finding the elk or they’re not.”
The Darby check station didn’t see any large bulls from the West Fork this past weekend.
“We had one bull come through from the West Fork,” Mowry said. “It wasn’t a large one. The hunter said he just wanted the meat. He said he had drawn two other hard-to-get tags this year and was running out of time to fill them. He also said he wasn’t getting much sympathy from his friends.”
Hunters also told Mowry that it appeared the mule and whitetail bucks look as if they were starting the rut, a time when they are more focused on finding does than steering clear of hunters.
“It feels a little early to me, but that’s probably something that is variable from one year to the next,” she said.
Even if that is the case, Mowry said there weren’t any large mule deer bucks brought through the check station over the weekend.
There were a total of 14 mule deer and 22 white-tailed deer that came through the check station so far this hunting season. That’s one more mule and white-tailed deer than what came through during the same three-week period last year.
Mowry reminded hunters with an unlimited buck mule deer permits in hunting districts 204 and 240 that they have until Nov. 11 to fill those. With only a few small exceptions, hunting doe deer in the Bitterroot is over except for youth hunters with a B license.
Mowry said some high school students from Hamilton did get to help check through a moose last weekend.
There are three permits for moose in HD 270 in the East Fork of the Bitterroot and one on the West Fork. Typically, hunters fortunate enough to draw a moose permit hunt during the rut, which occurs in September and early October.
The high school students were from Marie Antonioli’s AP Environmental Science class, which has been helping out at the Darby check station this year by visiting with hunters, collecting data and aging harvested animals through tooth wear and replacement.
“It’s part of an assignment to give students a taste of real-world natural resource management and it has been a big help to us at the station,” Mowry said. “Students this Sunday got a treat when a hunter stopped by with a bull moose from the upper Bitterroot.”
All hunters are required to stop at check stations, even if they haven’t harvested an animal. The general rifle season for deer and elk runs through Sunday, Nov. 26.
The Darby check station has operated only on weekends since 2014. So far this season, 2,144 hunters have been checked through. That number is down from 2,234 from last year and 2,600 in 2014.