This year’s hunting season in the upper Bitterroot began with a bang and ended with a whimper.
Early winter conditions at the start of the season offered hunters a chance to get into elk, but then the weather turned warm, the snow disappeared, and so did the opportunity to harvest an elk for most people.
The general hunting season ended Sunday.
“It was a weird season,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Bitterroot-based biologist Rebecca Mowry. “It started off strong with early snow, but then it petered out after it warmed up. The elk were either on private land, or they went up into the higher elevations where most people don’t go.”
There didn’t seem to be many elk in the places where hunters have come to expect to see them in the latter part of the season, Mowry said.
“I would have hunters come through the check station and tell me they saw elk on public lands, but they just couldn’t get to them,” she said. “The hunters in the next truck that came through would tell me there are no elk on public lands this year.”
This year, Mowry and others working FWP’s Darby check station counted 165 elk, which is about average over the last five years. The highest harvest came in 2015 when hunters brought 241 elk through the station. The next year, that number dropped to 139.
Deer hunters had a better year.
The 82 white-tailed deer brought through the check station was the second-highest harvest in the past five years. Biologists counted 37 mule deer, which was the largest harvest in the same time period.
“We did see a good number of deer come through during the peak of the rut,” Mowry said. “There were lots of big deer too.”
Mowry reminded hunters that they are required to stop at game check stations whenever they are open whether they harvested an animal or not.
“This year was particularly bad for that,” she said. “We watched hunters drive by and not stop. They are breaking the law when they do that. When you are hunting in Montana, you are required to stop at all check stations whether you have game or not.”
The check station at Darby has been open only on weekends since 2014.
Mowry said the decision to close it during the week came during a time when there was a shortage of staff.
“That made us take a closer look at why we were keeping it open through the week,” she said. “It was unnecessary from a data point of view, and it cost a lot of money to keep it open.”
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The check station was necessary when the season for antlerless elk was based on a quota, but once that went away, Mowry said it didn’t make sense to keep it open during the week when more than half of the harvest comes through the station on Saturday and Sunday.
“There were days of the week when we would see one or two animals come through,” she said. “It was a huge waste of money. Check stations were never meant to be a substitute for the information gathered through the annual phone survey. That’s where we get the bulk of our statistics.”
There will always be hunters with animals who don’t pass a check station. Some live locally and others come out in the middle of the night when the station isn’t open.
“They were never expected to capture the entire harvest,” Mowry said. “That was never their purpose.”
This year, Mowry said FWP officials decided to take down the sign at the Darby check station that showed the running total of animals that had been counted after people began to mess with it.
Initially, someone covered up one of the species with the word “unicorn.” Later that was changed to “ex-wives.”
“We did get complaints about that,” Mowry said. “It was upsetting to some people, so we ended up taking the sign down twice. That sign is not required. If people aren’t going to respect it, then it’s gone.”
The harvest was similar across western Montana.
FWP biologists reported checking 10,225 hunters with 837 game animals at its three check stations through the five-week season.
While the harvest was average in the southern Bitterroot and Big Hole through the Darby check station, numbers lagged in the Blackfoot where biologists checked 49 elk, 38 mule deer and 365 white-tailed deer. Those numbers were all below last season and the five-year average at the Bonner check station.
In the Upper Clark Fork, the harvest was closer to normal with 31 elk, 24 mule deer and 36 white-tailed deer coming through the check station near Anaconda.
The Darby check station did record the only wolf harvest in western Montana. Two wolves came through the check station on the last Saturday of the season.
Mowry said the wolves were harvested at the same time on Saturday.
“Two hunters, who both had wolf tags, were in the right place at the right time,” she said. “It worked out for them.”