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APPLICATION STRATEGY 2015: Montana deer & elk

 

Montana bull elk with cow
Photo credit: Getty Images

Overview

Montana has long been known as a great opportunity state for deer and elk hunting. If you are looking to add another hunt for 2015, the Big Sky Country is a great plan b. With over 30 million acres of state and federal public land (33% of the state) and another 8 million acres of Block Management that private landowners enroll for hunting, this state provides a lot of choices for hunters of all types and abilities. Since Montana’s deer and elk permits did not sell out in the spring drawings, this is a great state to think about over-the-counter opportunities in 2015. Here is what you need to know about this year’s drawing. Apply online here.

Why Montana for mule deer in 2015

Montana is not known for high numbers of trophy mule deer, but what it lacks in trophy potential, it makes up for in opportunity. There is plenty of public land with 40% of Montana’s mule deer found on public land. Montana is no doubt one of the most friendly states when it comes to mule deer hunters. In the trophy permit areas, a few great 200” bucks were taken last year, some within sight of a road. Proving that Montana is capable of producing quality deer with proper management.

Bucks on general season tags are harvested over 180” each year, but hunters should expect to see lots of 140” to 160” bucks. Finding those older age class deer will take a lot of time. This is also a great state for late-season rut hunts, the season goes well into the rut, so the later part of November is a great chance to glass up a lot of bucks.

Montana's top Boone and Crockett mule deer entries: Typical

County

Entries

Hunting Districts within county

Ravalli 10 204, 240, 250, 261, 270
Rosebud 8 701, 702, 704
Flathead 7 101, 102, 103, 110, 120, 132, 170
Lincoln 6 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 109, 110, 122
Teton 6 404, 406, 441, 442, 444, 450

 

Montana's top Boone and Crockett mule deer entries: Nontypical

County

Entries

Hunting Districts within county

Missoula 5 130, 201, 203, 204, 240, 260, 282, 285, 292
Gallatin 3 301, 309, 310, 311, 312, 314, 333, 361, 362, 390, 393 
Park 3 301, 313, 314, 315, 316, 317, 393, 560, 580
Ravalli 3 204, 240, 250, 261, 270
Rosebud 3 701, 702, 704


Why Montana for whitetail deer in 2015

Whitetails are found from the extreme and rugged country of Northwest Montana all the way to the plains of Eastern Montana. Currently, most whitetail populations in Montana are on a downward trend due to disease. Hunting districts in Region 1 would be a great place to hunt this year due to relatively easy winters over the last few years, with a lot of bucks finally reaching an older age class. 

Montana's top Boone and Crockett whitetail entries: Typical

County

Entries

Hunting Districts within county

Flathead 18 101, 102, 103, 110, 120, 132, 170
Lincoln 6 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 109, 110, 122
Rosebud 5 701, 702, 704
Dawson 4 651, 703
Lake 4 120, 130, 132, 201

 

Montana's top Boone and Crockett whitetail entries: Nontypical

County

Entries

Hunting Districts within county

Flathead 8 101, 102, 103, 110, 120, 132, 170
Lincoln 7 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 109, 110, 122
Missoula 6 130, 201, 203, 204, 240, 260, 282, 285, 292
Richland 5 651, 703
Fergus 3 410, 411, 412, 417, 418, 426, 511, 530


Why Montana for elk in 2015

Montana is a great state for hunting elk. It has one of the best general archery seasons in the entire country, and bowhunters have a full six weeks of hunting. Couple that with a lot of public land, and the majority of the elk coming from the western portion of the state and hunters have a great opportunity to get away from the crowds and be successful. 

Cody Wetmore bull elk

Photo credit: Cody Wetmore

Montana’s over-the-counter areas are perfect for growing older age class bulls. Plus, the majority of the state’s record class bulls have came from general units. Keep in mind, the western half of the state can be very remote and mountains are rugged, but with a long season, hunters can have a solid chance at a trophy bull. In 2014, a giant 444” gross elk was taken on public ground.

People looking to hunt Montana for elk on a general tag should stick to the western portion of the state and put on the miles to gain an edge in the archery and rifle seasons.

Eastern Montana
The famous Missouri River Breaks continue to produce great elk hunting for those people lucky to draw a tag. Hunters can expect to find 330” to 360” bull in most areas of the Breaks if they put their time in, with a few 380” plus bulls pulled from the Breaks each year. Most elk hunters apply for Units 410, 417, 621, 622, 631 and hunt along The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, but be sure to keep in mind that there are large amounts of Block Management areas (BMAs) or BLM land. Unit 690 is another good choice for trophy elk in the Bear Paw Mountains. This area has the potential for one of the best elk hunts in the state, but this unit also has a lot of private land issues that you will need to navigate.

Western Montana
One of the most notable hunting districts in Montana is Unit 380 in the Elkhorn Mountains. In 2014, 9,338 people applied for 120 tags. The Elkhorns are a place that every hunter should experience. Expect to find excellent elk hunting with a potential for bulls to break 340” to 360”. Units 445, 447, 570, 575 and 590 are other elk areas that should not be overlooked if you want to hunt a permit area, typically a great bull in these areas is around the 300” to 340” mark.

The best part about hunting elk in Montana? If you do not tag out in the archery season, you can turn around and hunt for another five weeks with a rifle. Montana is a rarity when it comes to opportunity. Those who want to use their bonus points can apply for some of the best elk hunting that the West has to offer. Herd numbers are not what they used to be, but some hunting districts are producing quality bulls each year.

Montana's top Boone and Crockett elk entries: Typical

County

Entries

Hunting Districts within county

Park 22 301, 313, 314, 315, 316, 317, 393, 560, 580
Gallatin 17 301, 309, 310, 311, 312, 314, 333, 361, 362, 390, 393
Beaverhead 10 300, 302, 321, 322, 324, 325, 326
327, 328, 329, 331, 332, 334, 340
Madison 9 310, 311, 322, 330, 323, 324, 326
327, 333, 340, 360, 361, 362
Lewis and Clark 8 150, 280, 281, 284, 293, 335, 339, 343, 380, 388
392, 421, 422, 423, 424, 425, 442, 444, 445, 455

 

Montana's top Boone and Crockett elk entries: Nontypical

County

Entries

Hunting Districts within county

Granite 5 204, 210, 211, 212, 213, 214, 216, 291, 292, 298
Hill 3 400, 600, 690
Lincoln 3 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 109, 110, 122
Park 3 301, 313, 314, 315, 316, 317, 393, 560, 580
Petroleum 3 410, 411, 530


General herd conditions:

The majority of Montana is still recovering from the hard winter of 2010. Herd numbers are on the rebound.

Mule deer
Herd numbers are slowly recovering in some areas and struggling in other parts of Montana. Mule deer numbers remain low in most areas of Western Montana. In some areas, mule deer are 30 to 40% below long term averages. Eastern Montana mule deer numbers are still struggling from hard winters in 2010 and 2011. Overall the statewide harvest on 4 point or better bucks crashed in 2006 and has been on the downward trend for the most part ever since.

Montana 4 point or better mule deer harvest

Whitetail deer
The past few seasons, epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) and bluetongue has reduced whitetail deer population numbers in portions of Eastern, Central and West-Central Montana, especially along river bottoms. Deer went into the winter very healthy, so where numbers are strong, hunters should be able to find more 4-year-old bucks in 2015, which should lead to great whitetail hunting. Health amounts of whitetails can be found near mountain hunting districts.

Elk
Statewide elk numbers totalled 158,518 in 2014. Mild winters have helped the elk herds in the western part of the state. Wolves have taken a toll on the elk numbers in a lot of regions, but Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks are reporting elk numbers near the long term average. Elk herds remain over objective in all of the Missouri River Breaks hunting districts.

Montana statewide elk six point or better

What's new in 2015?

  • Most general mule deer seasons are now buck only.
  • Hunters who receive a B License to hunt cow elk during the archery season or general rifle season in Region 1 and most of Region 2 may not take a bull elk in the district that the B license is valid.

The draw system: An overview

  • Tag or license: License plus individual permits.
  • Point System: Preference points for the nonresident general combination drawings. Bonus points are for nonresidents and residents. 
  • Youth: Can start building bonus points at age 12. No specific youth permits. Youth have a special two-day hunt in October.
  • Draw type: Regular draw.
  • Resident perk: Residents are given the majority of tags for permit areas. Putting them at a distinct drawing advantage.

Montana’s nonresident application systems is one of the most complicated states in the West. Be sure to understand how the draw works so your application is not revoked. Applicants need an ALS# to apply. ALS numbers can be looked up here.

Applicants may select three hunt choices when applying for deer or elk permits. The state considers all applicants’ first hunt choices before considering any applicant’s second choice. 

Nonresidents are limited to, but not guaranteed 10% of the license and/or permit quota for a district. Nonresidents are only eligible for a tag when at least 10 tags are offered.

Application types and deadlines

Nonresident
application

Online application
deadline
(by 11:59 p.m. MT)

Results
available

License
cost*

Bow and Arrow License     $10
Conservation License     $10**
Youth Combination March 16 End of
April
$500.50
Big Game Combination March 16 End of
April
$996
Elk Combination March 16 End of
April
$846
Deer Combination March 16 End of
April
$592
Landowner Sponsored
Deer Combination
March 16 End of
April
$592
Special Deer Permit March 16 End of
April
$5
Special Elk Permit March 16 End of
April
$9
Preference Point
for Combination
License
March 16 End of
April
$50
Bonus point fee
per species
March 16 End of
April
$20

*All permit applications include a nonrefundable fee of $10.
** Included in combination licenses

Resident
application

Online application
deadline
(by 11:59 p.m. MT)

Results
available

License
cost*

Bow and Arrow License     $10
Conservation License     $8
Deer License     $16
Elk License     $20
Special Deer Permit March 16 End of
April
$5
Special Elk Permit March 16 End of
April
$9
Bonus point fee
per species
March 16 End of
April
$2

*All permit applications include a nonrefundable fee of $5.
 

Cody Wetmore Montant whitetail
Photo credit: Cody Wetmore

Special limitations to consider

If you have drawn a buck mule deer permit, you have to use it with a current general deer license. A deer permit does not allow you to take a second deer. Hunters who receive an mule deer buck permit are not allowed to hunt for mule deer bucks anywhere else in Montana during that calendar year. Note: Once the permit is issued it cannot be voided or withdrawn. 

Nonresidents must obtain a Big Game Combination, Elk Combination, or Deer Combination license before applying for a deer or elk permit.

An elk permit does not allow you to take a second elk. Hunters who receive an elk permit may hunt in their permit area or any other area that is open to hunters with a general license. 

There are no archery-specific mule deer permits in the state of Montana. Drawing one of these coveted tags allows you to hunt the entire archery season, and then pick up a rifle during the general season. Note: Montana allows the use of archery during the general rifle season. This is a great time to bowhunt for rutting mule deer. 

The draw: Unlocking Montana’s system

Nonresident Big Game Combination, Elk Combination and Deer Combination licenses are drawn in the following order. You can apply online here.

First: Choose the nonresident combination license of your choice.

  • Big Game Combination
  • Elk Combination
  • Deer Combination
  • Landowner Sponsored Deer Combination

Second: Select whether you need a deer or elk permit.

Third: Select the hunting permit of your choice. Montana has a normal draw system, your first choice is awarded before everyone’s second choice. What this means is if you are looking to draw a tag, select that as your first choice. Your first choice is required. Second and third choices are optional. Second or third permit choices will only be considered if there are remaining tags or if the quota is unlimited. If you draw a second or third choice, you will not lose your bonus points. Note: do not repeat the same hunt code for first-third choices.

Fourth: After applying for Big Game Combination License or Elk Combination License, you must choose the following options if you are not awarded an elk permit in the drawing:

  • Keep your Big Game or Elk Combination license
  • Request an 80% refund
  • Turn in the General Elk license portion of your Big Game Combination License and retain the deer, fishing and upland bird license and receive a $306 refund.

Fifth: Make sure you pick the correct 5-digit elk and/or deer permit code for the hunting district. Pay special attention to the two digits at the end. These will correspond to archery or general rifle seasons. Failure to list all five digits will result in having your application being revoked.

Sixth: Party applications. If you are applying as a party, designate one member of your group as the party leader. You must then have him or her list all party members and provide the party number to all other members. Each party member can then apply. Note: all party members must apply in the same fashion, either all online or all on paper applications. 

Summary for bonus points: Apply for a combination license and a limited permit area. After drawing your combination license, and if you are unsuccessful in drawing a special permit area, you will get a bonus point. 

Montana’s application process is expensive for a nonresident. Here is a quick breakdown on the cost just to receive a bonus point for elk for example:

Cost if you just want a bonus point in Montana

License or Permit

Cost

Elk Combination license $846
Elk permit $9
Bonus point $20
Total $875
Request 80% refund $175

Under Montana’s system it will still cost you $175 for just for a elk bonus point.

The point system

The more bonus points you have, the more chances you have at drawing a coveted tag. Both residents and nonresidents accrue bonus points. You get one point for each year you apply for deer and elk permit. Bonus points will be squared prior to the drawing. Statistically speaking, squaring bonus points gives an advantage to the maximum point holders and further separates them from hunters just starting out in the application process.

Montana HD 380 elk permit drawing

For example, if you have four base bonus points those will be squared and you will then have 16 bonus points going into the 2015 drawing. All base bonus points accumulate over time until you draw a permit.

The maximum points for 2015 are:

Mule deer bonus points: 12
Elk bonus points: 12

If your application is unsuccessful you will automatically get a bonus point for next year’s drawing. You may skip two consecutive years without forfeiting bonus points. 

Montana also has a Preference point system for Big Game Combination, Elk Combination and Deer Combination licenses. Preference points increase the chances of drawing a combination license and essentially move you ahead in line. Seventy five percent of all combination licenses awarded during the drawing will be issued to hunters with preference points. Anyone applying with four preference points will draw the license before anyone with three, and so on. Preference points accumulated will be used during the current drawing whether you purchase an additional preference point or not. Preference points are lost after two years of not applying for a Nonresident Combination License. 

Youth 

There is no youth-specific point system in Montana. Although a youth can start building bonus points at age 12. Youth have a two-day deer season from October 15-16.

Party applications

A maximum of five hunters may apply together in a party application and are available for both elk and deer. Bonus points are averaged and rounded to the nearest whole number. Note: a party application means that a group of hunters are applying together for the chance to obtain hunting licenses or permits. It is illegal in Montana to transfer any hunting license to another person. Each hunter must harvest his or her own game animals.

Montana big game draw FAQs

Where and how do I apply?

You can apply for Montana’s deer and elk application process online or through the mail. Applications must be postmarked by US Postal Service, on or before March 16, 2015 to: 

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
License Section - Combo
1420 E 6th Ave.
PO Box 8009
Helena, MT 59604

Is Montana good for building points? 

Yes. Montana is a great state for building points, but it is an expensive system for nonresidents. Bonus points cost $20 per species for a nonresident, and $2 per species for a resident. 

Can I turn my tag in if I decide not to hunt?

All online license purchases and applications are final and cannot be changed or withdrawn. Once you draw your tag you can request an 80% refund on the tag by August 1 or a 50% refund before the start of the general season.

The seasons

Montana’s seasons are very straightforward. You have six weeks of archery hunting, followed by six weeks of the general rifle season. Deer and elk have the same season dates. 

Note: Montana also has “Weapon Restriction Areas” that allows the use of a muzzleloader, traditional handgun, shotgun, archery or crossbow during the archery- only season. So you might be able to use a firearm to harvest an animal during the early season. See the 2015 Montana regulations for more details.

2015 Montana deer and elk season dates

Season

Start and end date

Archery September 5 to October 18
Two-Day Youth Hunt
(deer only)
October 15 and October 16
General October 24 to November 29
Backcountry (HD’s 150, 151, 280, 316*)
Archery September 5 to September 14
General September 15 to November 29

*No archery season in HD 316

Hunter opportunity

General information, tips and our insights for hunting deer and elk in Montana.
 

Howard Mee 206 inch mule deer buck
Howard Mee took this 206 7/8" mule deer buck on a general season hunting district in 2014. Photo credit: Howard Mee

Draw odds and tag availability

Special features for mule deer in Montana

  • Deer hunters have a great range of opportunity with general season tags. Some of the biggest bucks in Montana have been harvested from the general units in both the western and eastern portion of the state.
  • If you draw a mule deer buck permit, you will still have competition from bull elk, cow elk and bear hunters in that hunting district during your hunt.
  • There are a lot of wolf and grizzly bear areas in the state.

2015 Montana deer permit areas

Special features for elk in Montana

  • Depending on the hunting district regulations, hunters can pursue brow-tined bull elk, spike bull elk, either-sex elk, or antlerless elk.
  • Drawing a bull elk permit allows you to hunt that permit area, plus general season hunting districts for elk.

2015 Montana elk permit areas

Wolves

Montana has a large population of wolves that travel across most of the western portion of the state. As of March 1, 2015, 202 wolves have been taken in Montana’s 2014/2015 season. You can purchase wolf tags online or at any FWP license provider.

Managing points and expectations

I have 0 points. What can I expect?

Mule deer

Nonresident general season Big Game or Deer Combination: With Montana’s licenses not selling out the past few years, it is safe to say that nonresidents will still draw a general license. A general license will allow you to hunt the majority of the state.

Permit application for residents and nonresidents: Plan to build points and hunt general areas or apply for mule deer buck permit areas with 100% draw odds. In 2014, 54% of the mule deer permit hunting districts had 100% draw odds due to unlimited tags. This is a great option for those who want to hunt mule deer bucks in a permit area to avoid competition. You can also draw these tags as your second choice and still build points for the heavy-hitter mule deer buck areas.

The top mule deer buck tags in the state range from requiring just a few points, to a lot of points to draw. You still have a chance to draw a tag, even with zero points. So put in for the permit area you hope to draw and hope you are lucky. If you do not draw your permit tag, you can still hunt Montana’s general deer season areas which encompasses 77% of the state.

Whitetail

Montana only has one permit area for whitetail bucks. HD 455-60 is open for hunting on a general deer license during archery season, but you must apply for the permit to hunt for whitetails in the rifle season. Apply for this permit in the March application season.

Elk

Nonresident general season Big Game or Elk Combination: With Montana’s licenses not selling out the past few years, it is safe to say that nonresidents will still draw a Big Game Combination or Elk Combination license for 2015.

Permit application for residents and nonresidents: Most rifle elk permits will be out of reach, but the great thing about Montana’s bonus point system is that you still have a chance to draw a great permit. A great strategy here is to use your first choice on a hard-to-draw area and use your second choice on an unlimited tag area. In 2014, there were only three areas in Montana to draw an elk permit as a second choice, HD 270, 310 and 313. Otherwise, use your first choice on your preferred HD and you could get lucky in 2015. 

Bowhunters have great odds at drawing an archery permit. Most of the Missouri River Breaks archery permits can be drawn with zero to one bonus points.

What can I do with 3 or 4 points?

Mule deer

Permit application for residents and nonresidents: Once again, plan on building points and/or hunt a general area in the state or apply in a 100% draw area. With four points you are still out of the running on most of the prime buck mule deer permits in Montana. You can still get lucky and draw a tag, so pay attention to what hunting district is trending and offers you the best terrain for your style of hunting.

Elk

Permit application for residents and nonresidents: A fair number of elk permits can be drawn with 3 or 4 points. Look for permit areas in the western portion of the state. The Missouri River Breaks rifle tags can still be drawn randomly with four points, because with Montana’s draw you always have a chance. 

What can I expect with 10 or more points?

Mule deer

With 10 points, you are in the running for any mule deer permit in the state. Most hunters with this many points are either applying for HD 261 or 270. These are well known as the top areas in Montana. You are still looking at very slim draw odds for any of these top permit areas, but you finally have a decent chance at pulling a tag. Try not to get discouraged, and keep applying for your number one area. 

Elk

On elk, with 10 plus points you have a solid chance at drawing some of the premium Missouri River Breaks rifle tags. Consider applying for Units 410, 417, 621, 622 or 631. HD 380 is also within reach, but with the amount of people that apply for the area, you might be waiting a few more years.

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