Elk Network2021 Montana Big Game Hunting Forecast

General | September 15, 2021

Below is a news release from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Are you ready for hunting season? FWP can help. In addition to the following hunting forecast, FWP provides online information about hunting access, including our popular Block Management Program. Through the program, we coordinate with landowners to provide hunting access to more than 7 million acres of private land.

The interactive Hunt Planner map allows users to look at information for various species, including hunting districts and regulations. The hunt planner interactive map is a great way to access our block management information, so if you’re planning a hunt in a certain area, you can see if there are Block Management Areas available to expand your opportunity.

And, as always, you can contact our helpful staff at any of our regional offices around the state. They’re happy to help and can often get you pointed in the right direction with just a few simple tips.

Montana has some of the longest hunting seasons in the West, healthy herds of game and access to millions of acres of public land. However, hunters must be mindful of fire danger and of private landowners who are facing grass shortages, poor crop production and fatigue from monitoring for fire. Hunter harvest helps to reduce wildlife densities on a stressed landscape, and perhaps to help lessen winter depredation on haystacks or winter range.

To have the best possible experience, hunters should plan ahead, check for any fire or access restrictions, and have a backup plan. Please stay on designated roadways and paths, and do not park your vehicle in tall grass. Remember to pack some basic equipment for fire suppression.

To check for possible Block Management closures or restrictions, hunters can visit fwp.mt.gov. The Hunt Planner map also will list any restrictions. To check for fire restrictions, visit the Restrictions and Closures page on the FWP website. Montana also has a new dashboard for comprehensive fire information at mtfireinfo.org.

Here are a few things hunters can do to show respect for private landowners during this dry season:

  • avoid vehicle use in areas with dry grass in the median
  • use caution when parking in areas with dry vegetation
  • report smoke or any signs of fire to local officials
  • carry a fire extinguisher or water to quickly snuff any potential fires.


Northwest Montana experienced its second consecutive mild winter last year, which has resulted in good (above-average) fawn recruitment and adult survival for white-tailed deer. For the second year in a row, Region 1 wildlife biologists generally observed more than 40 fawns per 100 adults during springs surveys. This represents a large increase from the low 30s during the hard winters of 2017, 2018 and 2019 and is indicative of increasing whitetail numbers. Overall whitetail numbers should be similar or slightly higher than last year with a good number of yearling bucks on the landscape.

The mild winter resulted in similar adult and fawn survival of mule deer. Overall numbers should be similar to last year with a continued influx of yearling bucks. Hunters are reminded to check the regulations as only antlered bucks (i.e. a deer with an antler or antlers at least 4 inches long as measured from the top of the skull) may be harvested in Region 1. There are also areas in HD 103 and HD 109 that require a permit to hunt mule deer. Between 2018-2019, FWP studied deer in Region 1, looking at survival, reproduction, habitat use and migration in two different study areas (not including a third study area on the East Front). In the Cabinet-Salish area, 41 mule deer does were collared, and 44 does were collared in the Whitefish Range. The mean annual survival rates for adult females were similar, and confidence intervals overlapped in both study areas (0.79 in the Cabinet-Salish and 0.75 in the Whitefish Range), with the highest mortality rates occurring in April and May. Most does died of predation by lions. Of all forage classes, shrubs were consumed the most during both summer and winter. The majority of collared does migrated from winter range to summer range, some moving long distances. Visit https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/deer for more information.

In areas where surveys were conducted, elk calf recruitment was similar to last year: relatively low compared to other parts of Montana, but above the five-year average for areas where surveys have been conducted in northwest Montana. Overall, elk numbers should be similar to last year. Elk hunting is challenging in northwest Montana due to difficult terrain, heavily forested areas and densities relatively lower than other areas in Montana. Elk distribution will likely change from now through the archery season and again during general rifle season due to changes in vegetation, snow levels and hunting pressure. Hunters are advised to do their homework and look for areas in the backcountry away from roads and high hunting pressure.

Following decreases in moose harvest and increases in hunter effort to pursue moose, FWP reduced the total number of licenses available in HD 105 from 20 to 12 and from 4 to 2 in HD 121 for the 2021-22 season. Rather than rely solely on survey and harvest data to inform trends in moose numbers, FWP began collaring moose in HD 105 (and in two other study areas) in 2013. Despite the harvest statistics mentioned above, FWP has consistently seen higher numbers of moose, including calves, during collaring efforts in HD 105. Thus far, the moose study has revealed that the Cabinet-Salish moose population is relatively stable although perhaps at lower overall numbers than historic highs. Visit https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/moose for more information.

Several wildfires in northwest Montana are likely to persist into this year’s archery hunting season. Hunters should be prepared for the possibility of continued Stage 2 fire restrictions on National Forest lands. Corporate timberlands in the region are currently closed to public access and recreation. Possible limitations to access due to firefighting and closures of private timberlands may continue into the archery season opener. Visit https://fwp.mt.gov/news/current-closures-restrictions for more information.

Big game check stations will be open in Region 1 — Highway 2 west of Kalispell; Highway 83 north of Swan Lake; Highway 200 on the west end of Thompson Falls; Highway 93 near Olney — on weekends during the general season. The Canoe Gulch check station near Libby will not be in operation. Hunters are required to stop at game check stations.

In recent years, FWP has detected chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer, mule deer and moose in the Libby area. Hunters need to be aware of the Libby CWD Management Zone, which includes portions of HDs 100, 103 and 104. A single CWD positive whitetail buck was detected in 2020 near the Thompson Chain of Lakes. CWD testing of deer, elk and moose will occur again throughout Region 1 to better assess if CWD is spreading. Testing for CWD is voluntary, and harvested animals can be checked at game check stations across the region, the Libby CWD Sampling Station (Montana Department of Transportation shop on U.S. Highway 2, mile marker 35) and at the regional office in Kalispell during certain days of the week. Hunters are encouraged to submit samples for testing so FWP can better assess where CWD is found in northwest Montana. Visit fwp.mt.gov/cwd for more information.

Overall, black bear numbers appear to be steady in northwest Montana. Although huckleberry crops were patchy in most areas of Region 1, serviceberry, mountain ash and elderberry were plentiful. Hunters should seek areas with abundant food sources like service berries, choke cherries and mountain ash, particularly at higher elevations.

All successful bear hunters will be required to present the hide and skull to an FWP official within 10 days of harvest. FWP will collect a tooth for aging. The tooth will be sent to a laboratory where the age of the bear will be determined. FWP biologists use this age information, along with the sex of the bear, to manage bear populations in Montana. For more information, visit fwp.mt.gov.

Northwest Montana has abundant wolf numbers. Record harvests in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons likely reduced overall numbers, but populations are healthy. Wolf-related legislation and Fish and Wildlife Commission season changes may affect several aspects of the 2021 hunting and trapping seasons, and hunters are encouraged to closely check regulations and the FWP website for updates. Despite good numbers, wolves can be difficult to find, don’t always move as a pack and often move long distances. If hunters want to be successful, scouting and understanding wolf behavior is important. Visit https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/wolf for more information.


Aerial surveys in western Montana documented more than 22,000 elk in 2020-2021, the highest count since 2017. Two consecutive mild winters have contributed to normal overwinter calf survival, which should pay dividends for hunters on public lands this year and in the coming years. However, the summer drought could dampen the survival rate of calves born this spring and conceived this fall.

Like last year, hunters hoping to participate in elk shoulder seasons this fall or winter are reminded to review the hunting regulations closely. Shoulder seasons over the past few years achieved their desired effect in many places, which means that elk regulations were adjusted in 2020 to shorten or remove shoulder seasons in many districts. In most hunting districts, elk hunters will not find an over-the-counter B-License available this year for shoulder seasons.

White-tailed deer numbers have been on an upward trend in general, but previous hard winters have dampened fawn survival. The past two mild winters have provided welcome relief and fawn production looks good this summer. However, the summer drought could dampen the survival rate of fawns born this spring and conceived this fall.

Opportunities to hunt mule deer are somewhat limited in western Montana. Many districts require a permit or B-license, awarded through the statewide application process earlier this year. Mule deer hunters should plan to go high in the mountains for the best opportunity at bigger bucks. An emerging opportunity for hunters in Region 2 is to hunt mule deer on private lands, where numbers generally are growing. Again, pay close attention to the regulations to make sure you are properly licensed to hunt mule deer.


There are only a few pronghorn hunting opportunities in western Montana, where the population of pronghorn is around 400. Hunting is limited to a few hunters who received a license through a special drawing.

For more information on pronghorn, deer and elk numbers and hunting opportunities in western Montana, check out the FWP Region 2 Wildlife Quarterly, available online at fwp.mt.gov/r2-wildlife-quarterlies.


Southwest Montana is experiencing exceptional drought this year. This will impact hunters as they prepare and spend time afield this season.

Fire danger remains high throughout the region, so be aware of fire restrictions, road and campground closures, and other regulations in effect to reduce wildfires. Keep motorized vehicles on roads, and don’t park over dry fuels. Contact the applicable land management agency for updates on area closures or fire restrictions. Some Block Management areas are also closed or restricted due to fire danger. Visit fwp.mt.gov to see what rules are in place for Block Management properties.

Some big game animals may be in diminished body condition this year due to drought and reduced forage, depending on species and location. This may also impact antler growth and reproduction. Overwinter survival of big game last winter was good in most areas because of mild weather. But survival during the coming winter and spring may be reduced if extreme winter weather follows the current season of drought and diminished forage.

Elk numbers in the Tendoy Elk Management Unit have been stable and above objective for the past 10 years. Hunting districts in the Tendoy Elk Management Unit have received increasing amounts of hunting pressure, reaching record highs in the 2020 hunting season. The large number of hunters, and the increased number of days they invested in hunting, led to above-average elk harvest. It is expected that this trend will continue in the 2021 season and hunters will continue to experience issues with crowding in accessible areas.

The most recent elk count in the Pioneer Elk Management Unit was significantly higher than average and over objective. However, elk migratory behavior and distribution during the unusually mild winter last year likely contributed to an unusually high count. In general, the Pioneer EMU elk population has increased over the past 10 years with populations remaining at or near objective.

Biologists have observed record-high numbers of elk in the Gravelly and Tobacco Root elk management units, where winter conditions last season were very mild. A high portion of elk in the north Tobacco Roots will be found off National Forest lands, and the 333-01 elk B license is valid for those areas. Antlerless harvest is encouraged in order to bring the herd closer to objective and to reduce the demand on limited forage resources in this area.

Elk production in the Big Hole this year has been status quo, with good overwinter survival from last season. Drought conditions here and elsewhere have created poor growing conditions, but hunting opportunity should still be plentiful. Elk will likely be more concentrated in wet areas.


Elk numbers in most parts of the Townsend area are good, and antlerless harvest is encouraged. Elk numbers in HD 392, however, have been down for several years. Elk numbers in the Helena area look good.

Elk numbers vary by district in the Bozeman area. Hunting districts 301, 309, 312 and 360 are above objective. HDs 311 and 362 are within objective. HD 310 is below objective, and antlerless elk harvest in this district is prohibited.

Elk numbers remain strong in the Livingston area, with most districts over objective. As with other districts, elk distribution in this area will vary depending on available forage.

In 2021, mule deer aerial green-up flights produced lower counts in the East Pioneer (HD 331) and Lima Peaks (HD 300) areas than the previous year. However, unusual green-up conditions likely failed to concentrate deer for a representative survey. In general, counts in these areas have been stable to increasing over the past 10 years. Mule deer buck harvest has been increasing in the Pioneers and Tendoys, also suggesting population growth. Recent surveys have indicated better than average buck-to-doe ratios. In the 2021 mule deer season hunters can expect a similar population to last year. However, recent surveys have suggested lower-than-average recruitment. Coupled with this year’s drought, this may have negative consequences for deer hunting opportunity in upcoming years.

Biologists observed an 11 percent reduction this spring in population trend counts in the Sheridan area compared to 2020. Like the East Pioneer and Tendoys, this was likely influenced by mild winter conditions, which didn’t produce a full concentration of deer on traditional winter range. Hunting opportunities here should be similar to last year. Because of drought conditions, a robust harvest of deer is encouraged to reduce competition for browse on winter range and improve winter survival.

Biologists and hunters have observed relatively few mature bucks in the Big Hole area due to strong hunting pressure. Mule deer numbers in districts in this area are below average.

Overwinter survival of mule deer in the Townsend area was good, but recruitment was still lower than usual last year. Mule deer numbers are down in most National Forest lands in this area, while mule deer may be overabundant in other localized areas, especially agricultural areas.

Mule deer numbers in the Helena area are still below long-term objectives, though annual recruitment this year shows some improvement. Previous extreme winter weather was hard on mule deer in this area, slowing their recovery.

Most districts in the Bozeman area are within objective for mule deer, with good winter survival from last season.

Mule deer counts in the Livingston area were down this year, probably due to mild winter conditions that didn’t produce a full concentration of deer on winter ranges where they could be surveyed easily.

White-tailed deer numbers remain strong in many parts of southwest Montana. They are typically associated with agricultural and private lands at lower elevations, where permission is required for access.

As a result of last year’s chronic wasting disease management hunt for white-tailed deer in southwest Montana, biologists observed a 50-percent reduction in white-tailed deer numbers in the Ruby watershed between Sheridan and Twin Bridges, where CWD prevalence was highest. No population reduction was observed higher in the Ruby watershed. A 14 percent reduction in white-tailed deer numbers was observed in the Jefferson Valley. Liberal harvest of white-tailed deer in this area is still encouraged.

White-tailed deer numbers in the Shields and Paradise valleys are down slightly as noted from on-the-ground observations and conversations with landowners.

Recent pronghorn counts in the Lima Peaks (HD 301) and East Pioneers (HD 310) have been above average, and the long-term trend indicates stable (HD 301) to increasing (HD 310) numbers. Recent pronghorn surveys in HD 300 and HD 329 show continued population declines since the late 1990s. These declines are associated with similar declines in fawn-to-doe ratios. Definitive information concerning the causes for diminished pronghorn numbers and fawn production is lacking. Pronghorn in these areas may be limited by habitat quality. Pronghorn in the Pioneers and Big Hole are interconnected and changes in migratory behavior could also influence counts. If 2021 drought conditions continue, many pronghorn will likely seek forage on greener areas of private land. This could make pronghorn hunting on publicly accessible lands more challenging.

Biologists observed a 13 percent increase in pronghorn in the west Tobacco Root mountains (HD 320) this year, but the overall number of pronghorn remains 30 to 40 percent lower than prior to March 2019 winter-related mortality. Most pronghorn are concentrated in the southern half of the district. Hunters with licenses for HD 320 are encouraged to pursue pronghorn in that portion of the district. Hunters looking for pronghorn in HDs 321 and 330 can expect similar numbers compared to 2020, though distribution of animals may vary due to dry conditions. Larger groups of pronghorn have been observed in smaller areas in close proximity to water and green vegetation. Pronghorn are often more influenced by drought than other species because they utilize dryer, lower-elevation habitat.

Pronghorn production in the Big Hole Valley seems to be down slightly this year, likely due to drought. But overall numbers are still decent, with many of them on private land.

Biologists have seen a poor fawn crop of pronghorn in HDs 371 and 380 south of Montana City, with a significant decline since the previous survey three years ago.

Pronghorn numbers are above average in hunting district 360 around Ennis, but biologists have seen some summertime mortality of collared does from various causes.

The pronghorn count in the Helena area was down this year. Because few pronghorn licenses are issued here already, there was no change to the number of licenses this year.

Pronghorn counts are also down in the Livingston area, especially in hunting district 338, which was down roughly 24 percent from 2019.


While mild conditions last winter may have helped bolster big game populations in some parts of north-central Montana, drought and wildfires over the summer will undoubtably negatively impact hunters in other areas. As is always the case, hunters that do their homework to locate areas of good habitat and game numbers prior to the season and who secure access will have the best chance for a successful hunt.

The overall outlook for elk in Region 4 is generally good. In the Castle and Little Belt mountains near White Sulphur Springs, biologist Jay Kolbe reported good calf production and recruitment, and also saw a record number of yearling bulls last winter, which should translate to good numbers of branch-antlered bulls this fall for those able to gain access. Near Great Falls, biologist Jake Doggett reports that elk numbers are above average in the Highwood Mountains and Devils Kitchen area, and slightly below average in a few areas of the Little Belts. Along the southern Rocky Mountain Front and Sun River, elk numbers remain stable and within long-term objectives. Shoulder seasons in the Birdtail Hills and areas of the front are in place to address elk numbers which are above objective numbers in those areas. Along the northern Rocky Mountain Front, elk numbers remain above long-term average, with bull-to-cow ratios at or near average. In the Sweetgrass Hills, elk are well over objective, giving hunters opportunity to harvest antlerless elk, although access can be difficult. Sonja Anderson, FWP biologist In Lewistown, said that elk in her hunting districts are all significantly over long-term average, but private land access is also very difficult, while severe drought is concentrating elk in agricultural areas with green vegetation. In the Missouri River Breaks, hunters should focus on areas near the river, or look for other water sources, as elk are keying on those areas as well.

Mule deer numbers show a mixed bag across the region, still recovering from recent lows near White Sulphur Springs, but increasing overall as a result of mild winter weather. Deer numbers are currently near the long-term averages along much of the northern and southern Rocky Mountain Front, while mule deer in agricultural grounds near Great Falls are doing well, but in the mountainous areas their populations are still down. Brent Lonner, FWP biologist for the southern Rocky Mountain Front, reports that ratios of both fawns-to-adults as well as bucks-to-does place deer very close to long-term averages in the districts he manages west of Great Falls. The eastern areas of Region 4 have pockets of both higher and lower than average deer numbers, and again Anderson notes that any areas with green vegetation are likely to have high numbers of deer.

White-tailed deer remain a bright spot in the region and offer ample opportunities to harvest bucks as well as antlerless deer to put some excellent meat into the freezer. Highest whitetail numbers are normally seen in private land agricultural and riparian ground, and hunters who obtain access to these areas can expect to see lots of deer this fall.

Pronghorn populations across the region also are mixed, with good fawn production and buck ratios reported near White Sulphur Springs, and lower overall numbers closer to Great Falls, where populations are still are recovering from severe winters in 2017 and 2018. Near Lewistown, pronghorn numbers remain below average and are still struggling to recover from severe winters a few years ago. Anderson believes that the drought conditions of the summer will have a significant impact on fawn survival, slowing population recovery even further. According to biologist Ryan Rauscher, pronghorn numbers in the Golden Triangle region north of Great Falls are mixed. Numbers are well below long-term averages near the Sweetgrass Hills, but in the heart of the Triangle their numbers have experienced a slow but steady increase from the low numbers of 2017, and license numbers have been increased as a reflection of those conditions.

Hunters will be glad to hear that no significant outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) have been reported as of late August. But the large wildfires experienced over the summer in Region 4 may significantly impact the distribution of game animals in and near areas that have burned, so hunters should put in some time scouting to be sure conditions have not changed in their favorite hunting areas. Also, the hot weather and severe drought conditions this summer may translate into poorer survival for big game animals in the upcoming winter, and likely will result in poorer production and recruitment to populations next year. Biologists recommend that hunters do their homework, and focus on areas where deer, elk, and pronghorn numbers are already above long-term averages, taking advantage of extra licenses where they are available.

Big game hunters rely on hard work, skill, luck, and access to good habitat to be successful year after year. While they may not be able to control their luck, their hard work and perseverance, coupled with good shooting and hunting skills, physical fitness and putting in the time and effort to secure access to good habitat and hunting areas before hunting season all pay off with success notching tags later in the fall.


Historically dry, warm weather and fire danger in south central Montana could play a role in hunter access as well as wildlife numbers and distribution during the 2021 hunting seasons.

While property owners are not yet saying that they will close their borders because of fire danger, hunters are encouraged to check with landowners before entering their property and take extra fire precautions when they head to the woods and fields this fall. Access to some traditionally open private land may be restricted until cooler temperatures and significant moisture arrive.

Particularly during the early archery and upland bird seasons, hunters should be prepared to walk long distances where landowners limit motorized travel on private property.

Elk populations throughout south central Montana remain robust and are either stable or growing. However, most of the elk are on private property where hunter access is an issue.

Mule deer numbers remain below the long-term average in all corners of south-central Montana. Though last winter’s weather did not harm populations, the herds still are trying to recover from the previous three severe winters. Buck-doe ratios are running behind average, and mule deer buck harvest has been 30 percent to 60 percent below average for the past couple of seasons. Mule deer hunters should expect significantly reduced opportunities to harvest an animal in south-central Montana this fall.

White-tailed deer numbers should be as good or better than last year in the northern and western districts of south-central Montana, but near a 20-year low along the Beartooth face and Clarks Fork River. East of Roundup, numbers remain depressed after an EHD disease outbreak a year ago. But, along he Musselshell River west of Lavina and in the Two Dot-Martinsdale area, white-tailed deer numbers at are near record highs. Along the Yellowstone and Boulder rivers, white-tailed deer numbers remain strong and hunters should expect to encounter animals in quantities similar to the past three or four years.

South of the Yellowstone River in south-central Montana, pronghorn numbers going into the 2021 season are at a 30-year low. West of Columbus and Ryegate, numbers also are lower than in previous years. As a result, fewer licenses will be issued for those districts this fall. Herds north of the Musselshell River suffered poor fawn recruitment this spring and remain below objective numbers. Northwest of Harlowton and districts north of the Yellowstone River and east of Columbus, pronghorn numbers are near objective. Hunters are likely to find pronghorn congregating near water in all areas of south-central Montana.


Elk surveys in the Missouri River Breaks in 2020 (the last year they were surveyed) were 15 percent below the long-term average. The 2021 elk survey in the Bears Paw area was above the 2018 survey and over twice the 15-year average. Most elk hunting opportunities are allocated through limited permit or B-license drawing in the region, with the exception of HD 690, where general licenses are valid for antlerless elk. A few districts where elk habitat and numbers are very low and difficult to find offer either-sex harvest on a general license. Please see the current hunting regulations to learn more.

Mule deer populations are high across the region but vary depending on the hunting district. Overall, numbers seen during spring surveys showed region-wide population at 84 percent above long-term average.

The winter of 2020-2021 was generally mild and very favorable for wintering deer, and no significant mortality events were reported in the region for mule deer. In addition, the favorable winter, combined with already high deer numbers observed the last few years, has led to the well above-average numbers.

Antlerless mule deer B-licenses remain at high levels, and there may be surplus tags still available in some districts. Please visit fwp.mt.gov for the current information on surplus licenses.

White-tailed deer densities continue to remain stable across the region. The 2021 survey showed white-tailed deer density averages of 9.8 deer per square mile across the deer trend areas, which is just below the long-term average of 10.7 deer per square mile.

A single-region antlerless whitetail B-license will again be available for over-the-counter purchase, with a limit of one per hunter. Additionally, some whitetail B-licenses may be available in surplus.

In general, pronghorn populations have been slowly increasing the past 10 years across the region from historic lows in 2011. While some survey areas have observed increased numbers and are at or above their long-term averages, there are still a few areas where pronghorn are still below their long-term average. Moderate numbers of pronghorn licenses were distributed through the drawing system and those who have drawn licenses should have a good opportunity to harvest a pronghorn.


Southeast Montana is typically dry and hot heading into fall, but this year conditions are especially dire. All of Montana is experiencing extreme drought, and fire danger is incredibly high.

The Missouri Breaks (HD 700) and Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, 705) remain the two “core” elk populations in southeast Montana. Outside of these areas, elk numbers are generally low, but numbers have been increasing at a moderate rate, accompanied by a gradual expansion into previously unoccupied habitat.

FWP biologists typically observe strong calf recruitment and an excellent composition of bulls.

Branch-antlered bull hunting is by permit only in HDs 700, 702, 704, 705 and the far-western portion of 701. But even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, Region 7 offers opportunities to hunt elk with a general license. The general elk license is valid for spike bull or antlerless elk in HDs 702, 704 and 705 (but not valid on the Custer National Forest during the general rifle season). Allowing spike bulls to be harvested increases opportunity for hunters and prevents accidental violations when spikes are mistaken for antlerless elk.

In HD 703 and the eastern three-quarters of 701, hunters can pursue either-sex elk with a general license, but hunters should be aware that elk are scarce in these districts, often highly transient or occurring in small pockets of habitat, and primarily found on private land. The estimated elk harvest in HD 703 for 2020 was 65 elk, compared 4,000 for the relatively abundant mule deer.

Harvest estimates suggest about 180 elk were harvested in HD 701, 650 in HD 700, and about 750 in the Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, and 705). Hunters can expect elk to be distributed a bit differently this year due to drought.

The drought will undoubtedly impact deer hunting this fall, but biologists expect to see a bigger impact from the coming winter and hunters should expect to see even fewer deer next season (2022). Region 7 began 2021 with below-average mule deer numbers.

This year’s drought means animals are going into winter with little to no fat reserves, and winter is a season during which deer struggle to eat enough to meet their energy needs even in good years. If they can’t store enough fat during the summer, they can struggle to survive the winter.

Mule deer observed during spring survey flights were 28 percent below last year and 17 percent below the long-term average, a result of drought in the southern portion of the region that began last fall. The recruitment rate for mule deer fawns this spring was just below average at 55 fawns per 100 adults, and was generally poorer further south in the region.

In response to drought and poor habitat conditions, biologists in southeast Montana reduced antlerless quotas for 2021 by 50 percent. Previously, these licenses had been selling out during about the third week of the season. This year, they are expected to sell out much sooner.

Mule deer numbers had been increasing since about 2012, a result of mild winters and good spring/summer moisture. The good news for hunters is that each good year for deer production and survival equals a solid year-class recruited into the population, so Region 7 currently has a good dispersion of age classes on the ground with a mix of young, middle-age and older animals. Buck-to-doe ratios remain good, averaging 41 bucks per 100 does in the region.

Whitetail numbers remain variable but are generally up, depending on the area of the region. Overall, their numbers are 12 percent above last year. Whitetails in core river bottom habitat are well above long-term averages. However, in upland and agriculture habitats, numbers vary from below average to well above.

Buck harvest was 28 percent above long-term average last fall. Fawn recruitment this spring was a little below average at 51 fawns per 100 adults.

Pronghorn populations have dropped considerably from last year across southeastern Montana.

Overall, the pronghorn population in this region is 39 percent lower than in 2020, and 20 percent below the 10-year average. Much of this decline is due to the severe drought, as well as overabundant grasshoppers in area that depleted vegetation.

While the decline occurred throughout the region, in general pronghorn numbers remain better in the southern third of the region (primarily HDs 704 and 705). During summer surveys, biologists observed more than five pronghorn per square mile in the very southeast corner of the state. That transitioned from more than two pronghorn per square mile in the central portion of HD 705, and from less than one to just over one pronghorn per square mile throughout most of HDs 700, 701 and 703.

The good news is that buck numbers are healthy going into this hunting season, with 59 bucks per 100 does across the region. Hunters can find better success in remoter areas with good public land opportunities.

FWP is offering fewer Region 7 either-sex and doe/fawn rifle licenses than in the last few years. A newer opportunity is the 799-30 doe/fawn license, which is valid only in HDs 704 and 705. It is a second opportunity license that is available only to those hunters who drew a 007-20 and/or 007-30 pronghorn license (which are valid in all of Region 7). The 799-30 license is available one per hunter. Sportsmen may hold up to three pronghorn licenses in a given year, only one of which may be an either-sex license.

During weather extremes, animals may often distribute differently compared to most years. Hunters should be prepared to have backup spots in case pronghorn have shifted away from their usual fall use areas; finding anywhere with green vegetation is a good place to focus. Given the hot and dry conditions, archery pronghorn hunters targeting water holes may have quite a few encounters; however, be aware that many reservoirs are very low or are completely dry, so hunters may have to search for ones with water remaining or focus on stock tanks.

(Photo source: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)