Hunters can expect fewer mule deer licenses in some areas of Montana this season. Overall survival rates and fawn recruitment numbers are down following consecutive hard winters and persistent drought. In fact, recent surveys conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) found that mule deer herds in southeast Montana are 48% below the long-term average, according to a news release.
“It’s really not been just one thing,” said Brett Dorak, FWP Region 7 wildlife manager. “Hard winters, dry summers – it all takes a toll on mule deer in particular. But that’s what our adaptive harvest management plan is designed to address – localized conditions that impact populations. By following the plan, we have adjusted our antlerless B license opportunity annually and over the past few years we have reduced those opportunities by 91 percent.”
B licenses have been reduced so much to help mule deer populations that, for instance, in Region 7, in 2020 there were 11,000 available; however, this year, there are only 1,000. Region 6 and Region 4 area will also have decreases in the number of B licenses offered for the upcoming season.
“We’ve been lowering our B license numbers for a few years,” said Cory Loecker, Region 4 wildlife manager. “But even with the favorable weather conditions this spring and the resiliency deer can exhibit, their numbers will take some time to rebound.”
Other changes to be aware of heading into the season include a change from either-sex licenses to antlered buck mule deer only in the following hunting districts: 301 in southwest Montana; 410, 411, 412, 417, 419, 426 and 471 in north-central Montana; 621 and 622 in northeast Montana; and 700, 701, 702, 703, 704 and 705 in southeast Montana. Whitetail opportunity remains the same in these hunting districts for 2023.
The changes are reflected in the online hunting regulations. The hardcopy version was printed before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the changes.
“It’s important for hunters to know how we’re responding to declines in mule deer numbers,” said FWP Director Dustin Temple. “We’ve heard for the last few years from landowners and hunters alike that they’re concerned about deer numbers. Staff’s application of our adaptive management plan to be more conservative with harvest really fits the situation on the ground.”
FWP biologists are hopeful that quality summer and autumn forage will help mule deer survive the long winters ahead.
“We had some timely rains late last summer and autumn, which helped with some late vegetative production,” said Dorak. “Mule deer pregnancy and fetal rates are associated with forage quality in the fall, and those late rains we had may be the reason why we saw a small rebound in our recruitment rates this spring. Prairie mule deer populations are cyclical, and we have been in these low spots a few times over the past four decades, but these mule deer are also resilient. When environmental conditions are favorable, these populations can bounce back.”