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Application strategy 2022: Montana mule deer

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Montana's 2022 mule deer application overview

Jump to: NEW FOR 2022 State Information Draw System Mule Deer Breakdown Points System

The application deadline for Montana big game, elk and deer combination licenses along with deer and elk permits is April 1, 2022 by 11:45 p.m. MDT. The application process is completely online here or in any Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) office.


New for 2022

For 2022, there will be a number of changes hitting Montana and anyone interested in hunting there will want to pay close attention to the regulations. Within the hunting districts for nearly all of the species, hunters will find new unit boundaries, new larger single units where many old units used to be, changed unit numbers plus many more changes along the way. Permit and general hunting areas stayed about the same for their respective areas; however, a number of small changes may have occurred. This year, especially, it will pay dividends to really watch the regs and Filtering 2.0 for these changes.

Along with the hunting district changes, there were also some huge changes on the legislative side.

Big changes to nonresident combination license draw odds

It has long been written in Montana’s law that 75% of the available combination licenses should be made available to applicants with the highest points while the remaining 25% should be made available to applicants who have not purchased preference points. Historically speaking, the number of applicants who fell into the “have not purchased preference points” segment was not enough to fulfill the full 25% of allotted tags. Due to this, the remaining percentage is then turned back over to the original 75% of tags allocated for the highest point holders.

However, in 2021, there was such an increase in applicants overall that this small rule made a big impact on all three of the combination license options. In fact, in 2021, there were more than enough applicants who fell into this pool to completely satisfy the 25% ruling — a first in the history of the nonresident combination licenses. This can be illustrated by the fact that the drawing odds at zero points are now higher than those found at one point!

This also introduces the possibility of a new draw strategy; If you are sitting on zero points, should you not buy a point with your 2022 application? After all, the odds are higher at zero points than with one. Or will a lot of people attempt this angle and leave a big gap of sorts in the one-point pool? Really, there is no way of telling until next year's application, but it will be very interesting to see how things play out. It’s likely that many applicants will be unaware of this big change and will still be purchasing points for 2022.

Preference point fee increase

Under a new bill signed into law last year, SB637, there are also some big changes coming to Montana that will specifically impact nonresident combination licenses in 2022.

Preference point fees will now be increasing from $50 to $100 per point. This is the first price change for this point type and now also makes this an expensive add-on. 

Preference point only purchase period

In 2022, preference points can be purchased from July 1 to December 31.

Preference point purge

Traditionally, Montana would allow applicants to use the points-only purchase option for two years with applicants required to apply on the third year or else their accumulated points would be forfeited.

Starting in 2022, applicants now have to apply every other year or risk losing their points. This means that if you bought a point last year, you must apply this year or forfeit your points. This does not affect bonus points. 

Applying with an outfitter

As it stands, applicants can build one preference point a year with one exception: any applicant applying with and hunting with an outfitter can purchase up to two points per year! This creates a huge advantage for outfitted hunters while dealing a blow to those in the DIY camp. This will certainly have some effect on the draw, but we will not know how much until after this draw period.

New mobile app for tags and licenses

FWP launched a new way to avoid having to use paper tags and licenses. You can store and display licenses, permits, and digital carcass tags on the app. Even when you don't have cell service. Learn more here.

New Point Tracker feature on GOHUNT

Your GOHUNT INSIDER account also has the NEW Point Tracker feature. This allows you to enter the number of points you have for each state and species and, as you research through Filtering 2.0 and Draw Odds, your point total will automatically be highlighted.


State Information

View important information and an overview of the Montana rules/regulations, the draw system and bonus points, SuperTags, tag and license fees and an interactive boundary line map on our State Profile. You can also view the Montana Deer Profile to access historical and statistical data to help you find trophy areas.

Montana State Profile Mule Deer Profile GOHUNT Maps Draw Odds Filtering 2.0

Important dates and information

  • Applications for deer must be submitted by 11:45 p.m. MDT on April 1.
  • Applications can be submitted online here after March 1, 2022.
  • An 80% refund can be requested on nonresident licenses if requested by Aug. 1, 2022.
  • A 50% refund can be requested on nonresident licenses if requested after Aug. 1, 2022.
  • Draw results will be available approximately two weeks after the draw deadline.
  • Surplus licenses are available for purchase in early August.
  • Preference and bonus points are available for purchase for nonresidents who did not apply in the general drawing for a fee. See more information here.
    • Bonus points purchase period: July 1 and September 30
    • Preference point purchase period: July 1 to December 31

Montana license, point, and permit fees for 2022

Item Resident fee Nonresident fee
Base hunting license $10 $15
Conservation license $8 $10
Deer license $16 NA
Elk license $20 NA
Deer combination license NA $646
Elk combination license NA $934
Big game combination license NA $1,108
Deer permit application fee $5 $5
Elk permit application fee $9 $9
Bonus point fee
(w/ draw application)
$2 $20
Bonus point fee
(points only period)
$15 $25
Preference point fee NA $100

Predators in Montana

The predator populations in Montana are often the subject of spirited debates with strong feelings on both sides of the spectrums. Wolf packs continue to maintain healthy population levels and have firmly rooted themselves into most of the western portion of the state. Deer and elk populations are down throughout the state compared to historic levels, but great hunting can still be found.

Grizzly populations continue to climb along with bear and hunter interactions. Currently, hunting seasons across the West are still on hold for grizzly bears. Much of western Montana is home to a roaming population of grizzlies and hunters need to be acutely aware and prepared when spending time in these locations.

Even with growing grizzly concerns, hunters can still find plenty of huntable areas where they won’t have to worry about grizzlies. When researching specific areas, a quick call to local biologists can be well warranted.


Current snowpack conditions

2022

Montana snow water equivalent update as of March 16, 2022. Source: National Resources Conservation Service
 

2022 Montana drought monitor status as of March 8. Source: United States Drought Monitor

2021

Montana snow water equivalent from March 1, 2021. Source: National Resources Conservation Service

2021 Montana drought monitor status from March 9. Source: United States Drought Monitor

The 2021/2022 winter has been a light one, historically speaking, but has not been light enough to cause any major concern either. Winterkill should be mostly minimal this year; however, our main attention will be turning to available feed on the landscape throughout the spring months. Rains will be vital throughout the spring and early summer months and will be something to keep an eye on. Still, 2022 would not be a year I'd turn back a tag in Montana due to precipitation concerns.


The Montana Draw System

Before diving into the trending hunt districts for Montana deer in 2022, it is first important for hopeful applicants to fully understand the Montana draw system, which can, at times, be very complicated. For the main limited entry permit draws, Montana employs a random lottery that is weighted by bonus points. Additionally, bonus points are squared at every point level. This system heavily favors those with the most points; however, every applicant at every point level has a chance of drawing a tag every year. The bottom line: you’ll never draw if you never apply.

Montana nonresident big game combination licenses explained

The prerequisite for all nonresidents in Montana will be the big game, elk or deer combination license.

  • Elk combination license: Elk, conservation license, state lands, upland bird (excluding turkey), base hunting, AISPP and season fishing license.
  • Deer combination license: Deer, conservation, state lands, upland bird (excluding turkey), base hunting, AISPP and season fishing license.
  • Big game combination license: Deer, elk, conservation license, state lands, upland bird (excluding turkey), base hunting, AISPP and season fishing license.

The combination licenses essentially act as a general tag for Montana and must be drawn. Unlike limited entry permits, the combination licenses are distributed through a preference point system where 75% of the tags are reserved for the highest point holders. The remaining 25% of the tags are then put into a random draw with the remaining applicants who have not purchased any preference points.

Limited entry permits

Beyond the general tags and nonresident combinations, hunters can apply for limited entry permits. Successfully drawing a limited entry permit does not grant a second animal, but does augment the general tag to include new areas for hunters. These limited entry districts generally carry higher success rates and more mature animals, but this is not always the case. MTFWP also uses some limited entry districts as population control tools where they offer unlimited permits in hopes that the area will see a higher harvest for the year. Out of all of the limited entry districts for deer and elk, less than half actually offer better odds at trophy animals than some of the better general hunts.

Nonresident tag allocation

Montana grants nonresidents up to 10% of a district’s tag quota; however, the 10% is not guaranteed. Some years, the nonresident applicant pool will fill the entire 10% cap and other years it can be significantly less.

Party applications

In addition to individual applications, hunters can also apply for deer and elk permits as a party. The maximum party size is five. When processing a party permit, the state will consider the average number of points between all of the party members and then round to the nearest whole number for a final party permit total. For example, a party with an average of 2.33 points would enter the draw at two points while a party with 2.66 points would enter at three.

When used correctly, party applications can be very beneficial. Residents and nonresidents can apply jointly, but the party will be forced into the 10% pool for available permits.

Points only option

If applicants are simply looking to build points for the current year—both preference and bonus — they can skip the expensive application prerequisites. Bonus points can be purchased between July 1 and September 30 for $15 per species for residents and $25 for nonresidents. Additionally, nonresidents can purchase combination license preference points from July 1 to December 31 for $100. You cannot apply for a permit or combination license and purchase a separate point in the same year. Only one point per species can be accumulated per year.

A tip for preference points

Montana offers applicants a unique opportunity to purchase preference points prior to the draw deadline for use in the current year application on nonresident combos. Essentially, if anyone is willing to front the extra $100, they can apply with at least one preference point every year.

The difference between bonus and preference points

Every year, we get many questions regarding the difference between the two point types in Montana and how they both work.

Bonus points: Montana has a bonus point system in place for all special permits (deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, moose and mountain goat). Every year that you are unsuccessful in the drawing — and you participate in the bonus point system — you will be awarded a point. When you apply in the draw, your accrued points are squared to increase the odds exponentially for the applicants with more accrued points. All base bonus points accumulate over time until you draw a permit.

Preference points: Montana also has a preference point system for nonresident 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. 75% of all combination licenses awarded during the draw will be issued to hunters with preference points. Anyone applying with three preference points will draw the license before anyone with two and so on. Preference points accumulated will be used during the current drawing whether you purchase an additional preference point or not.

Get a full breakdown on bonus vs preference points here


Montana's 2022 mule deer breakdown

2021 was a fairly quiet season in Montana with very few notable bucks being taken. Warm weather was more to blame than anything else; however, this could point to a potential bumper crop of sorts for mature bucks this year. I’m not going out on a limb and making any bold predictions, but the science is adding up. Regardless, we still need a good spring and summer, but we can always hope!

Current mule deer herd condition

Winterkill rates have been fairly normal over the last few years; however, populations continue to drop in many areas in the western half of the state. Deer in the more open country found in the eastern half of the state have been doing great. As a response to this, MFWP has set several units in the western half of the state to have general mule deer seasons ending by November 13. This shortened season should cut some of the mule deer harvest success of mature bucks in general; however, hunters could still have some heavy rutting activity depending on the weather. 

 
 

Trophy potential is not great in Montana. Yet, hunters do occasionally stumble into some large deer. In general, bucks exceeding the 160” Boone & Crockett (B&C) mark are among the top-tier deer for any given unit with the average bucks falling around 140” to 150”. Some of the units in the eastern portion of the state have been known for producing bucks over 180” and hunters will need to work extremely hard or secure private access for these. Some of the more prolific limited entry units have been routinely producing bucks well above the B&C minimum; however, hunters will face incredibly steep odds in securing a tag.

As stated, private lands throughout the state — particularly those in the east — will provide the best opportunity at trophy-class bucks. Fortunately, there is so much public land available in the state that hunters can really find good bucks anywhere with enough work and boot leather.


Hunt choices

General season

The general season units are where the vast majority of hunters will find themselves year after year. The biggest bucks are routinely taken on limited entry hunts, but hunters can find some great hunting in the general areas. Trophy potentials will generally be lower; however, those who invest the time into research and hunting will find good repeatable success in a slew of units across the state.

General season hunts are available as over-the-counter (OTC) for residents, but must be drawn by nonresidents through the deer combination or big game combination license. Different parts of the state will require different tactics and those who are flexible in their approach can find plenty of lightly pressured animals away from the crowds. With the wide array of terrain types offered in the state, hunters should have little trouble putting together a hunt to meet all of their needs.

Montana's top general deer hunting districts
by number of mule deer bucks harvested*

Hunt district Trophy
potential
Bucks
harvested
4 point or
better percentage
Public land
percentage
704 170"+ 2,207 73% 30%
705 170"+ 2,186 75% 30%
703 160"+ 1,808 76% 16%
700 160"+ 1,733 78% 36%
701 170"+ 1,604 78% 18%
690 160"+ 1,585 80% 11%
670 150"+ 1,440 83% 45%
650 160"+ 1,272 82% 22%
590 160"+ 1,135 67% 6%
640 150"+ 1,038 82% 10%

*Data is based on the 2020 season. As of March 9, 2022, the 2021 harvest reports have not been published.

Due to Montana’s harvest data collection practices, it can be very difficult to find good usable data when researching hunts. One aspect I like to look at is the number of bucks harvested. A high number of bucks harvested can mean a large number of things; however, If I was primarily interested in taking any legal buck I know that this will provide a good starting spot. Additionally, I also like to compare these numbers with public land percentages as this will really start thinning out the list for me.

Many of the above listed units are found on the eastern half of the state and also include a much healthier distribution of private lands than those found to the west. However, it is important to keep in mind that the sheer size of most of these units can double or even triple other units in the state and there are still thousands of acres of public land to be hunted. Land ownership tends to be very checkerboarded in these areas and knowing the public/private boundaries will be pivotal.

The above list is also more geared towards a hunter who is purely heading to Montana to hunt deer. Keep in mind that if you’re actually doing a combo hunt for elk, you may be looking into different areas. Units in Region 3 will generally provide the best option for combo hunts.

Block Management Areas (BMA)

Along with the great public land options, hunters will also find cool opportunities to hunt private land through Montana’s Block Management Program. Under this program, private landowners enroll their parcels of land with MFWP to allow access for hunting in return for a monetary payment. This can be a great program for hunters to take advantage of and can certainly play into your application strategy in some areas. You can read more on this great program here.

Limited entry

Like many other western states, the biggest bucks in Montana are often the product of a limited entry hunt. It is important to realize, though, that not all limited entry hunts will equate to better deer hunting. Some are used in areas where hunter numbers need to be controlled due to low deer numbers and others are used where MTFWP wants to reduce deer numbers.

In general, when targeting the largest bucks in the state, only a handful of units will truly offer hunters a unique hunting opportunity. This small selection of quality units forces long-time applicants into the same hunts year after year. Without a true preference point system for permits you are playing the odds game every year — no matter your point level. 

All things considered, applying for permits is cheap if you are already planning on hunting with the general tag so throwing your name in the hat is a no-brainer.

GOHUNT hit list for limited entry hunts in Montana
(not in order of quality)

Hunt district Trophy
potential
4 point or better
percentage
Public land
percentage
261 180"+ 75% 60%
262 180"+ 87% 2%
270 180"+ 80% 85%
291 170"+ 94% 20%
303 170"+ 71% 75%
401 170"+ 71% 10%
441 170"+ 82% 61%
202 160"+ 63% 94%
210 160"+ 79% 42%

HD 261 and 262: Both of these units are currently among the most popular for big bucks in the state right now. Bucks eclipsing the 190” mark have been common for the last several years with a decent handful approaching the 200” line. HD 261 is comprised of more public land than 262, but nearly all of the big deer will be killed on private lands. Beyond drawing the tag, the biggest hurdle in this hunt is simply gaining permission to hunt a piece of land that is holding a big buck. Hunters interested in trophy deer will enjoy this hunt; those who are also after the adventure will not.

HD 270: Still one of the most popular hunts in the state, HD 270 has long been known for producing some incredible deer. Trophy size has been down in the past few years, but hunters can still expect realistic shots at bucks above the 180” mark. The area is comprised of a healthy mixture of private and public lands with good bucks found on both. Anyone who draws this permit will be in for an incredible hunt. There is a new permit for HD 270 for this season that will limit hunters to bucks with three points or less. There is a large three-point gene currently existing here, along with some giant two-point bucks. 

HD 291: HD 291 has been a somewhat undercover big buck unit for a number of years. Trophy potential is decent, but some incredible deer have been taken on private ranches in recent years. Hunters will find a small distribution of public lands although these areas do carry a lot of deer and some good bucks.

HD 303: This is an excellent unit to consider for those who still want a big adventure hunt. During periods of heavy snow, this unit will see a good migration of deer from the Idaho side of the border. Glassing opportunities are ample and, during the rut, this can be an incredible hunt. The average buck will land around 170”; however, with the right conditions, some staggering deer have been killed.

HD 401: This area can be hunted on a general tag; however, in order to hunt the rut, hunters will need to draw a permit. This area consists largely of private lands, but deer can grow to exceptional sizes. Hunters who secure private access will have the best odds for success and hunters who play property lines and move into small chunks of public can do extremely well. 

HD 441: This unit is found along the famed Rocky Mountain Front. Hunters will find exceptional videos with good hunting opportunities. Public land distribution is fairly low in this area, but good bucks can be found. Additionally, those with the tag can hunt the 6,500-acre Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch. 

HD 202: This unit is found in western Montana along the Idaho border. Some good deer can be taken within close proximity of roads; however, this unit is largely rugged country and hunters will need to work hard for a mature buck. Locating bucks in the 150” to 160” range is doable with some hard work and the possibility of locating something over 180” is there for those willing to put in the time. This area has low deer densities although they tend to congregate during periods of heavy snow.

HD 210: This area has produced some exceptional bucks in recent years although a large chunk of these have come off of private lands. This unit has a good compromise of open sage country and timbered slopes and bucks can be found throughout both of these zones. 


How to find hidden gem mule deer areas in Montana

With so many units available in Montana, the question of where to begin can be an intimidating area to start. With the wide array of terrain features available in the state, hunters can really choose a hunt that best fits their desires. Typically, those heading to the Treasure State specifically for deer will find far better opportunities in the eastern half of the state. However, hunters who are looking to make a combo hunt for deer and elk — particularly with the emphasis on elk — will find better options in the western half of the state. The most important factor to first consider will be your goals for the hunt.

Hunters shouldn’t expect a crazy high trophy potential in any unit in Montana — with the exception of some limited entry permits — but, with some research, bucks in the 150”+ range are there.

Use our Filtering 2.0 tool to search historical data and find a hunt that is right for you. Utilize the trophy potential slider, public land filter and bucks harvested to really filter down the options. Keep in mind that the eastern half of the state consists of huge parcels of private lands. Some public land pieces in these areas can be completely landlocked and otherwise unavailable to hunters. Using land ownership maps can be a great way to find small access points into areas that other hunters may glaze over simply because access is difficult.

 

Managing points and expectations

The points system

Preference points

Preference points are utilized when drawing for Montana’s deer, elk or big game combo licenses.

With the big changes to odds for the combination license, many people will be scrambling to figure out their application strategy. Do you apply without buying a point and hope for the better odds at zero points or do you buy a point? Buying a point this year may not guarantee a tag, but it could put you in better positioning for 2023. Here is a breakdown of application numbers from last year.

Breakdown of applicants for each combination license

Big game combination license

Points Applicants Total drawn
0 4,150 2,944
1 15,595 5,413
2 4,218 4,217
3 309 309

Deer combination license

Points Applicants Total drawn
0 4,548 2,474
1 12,561 5,045
2 2,248 2,248
3 127 127

Elk combination license

Points Applicants Total drawn
0 1,836 1,306
1 4,604 1,601
2 1,104 1,104
3 101 101

Bonus points

 

Montana is a state that is managed for opportunity and, because of this, does not have the number of top quality districts found in surrounding states. Good hunt districts are available across the state with five to six points or under, but the top-tier districts will require maximum points and, even then, the odds will rarely eclipse 5% — even for residents.

I have 0 deer bonus points. What can I expect?

Before beginning your application strategy, it will be important to first decide your end goal for Montana. Mainly, do you plan on hunting Montana on general tags or are you only interested in building points to use later? As a nonresident, applicants will need to apply for their combo license in addition to any extra permits. If you are unsuccessful in the draw, you are only granted an 80% refund of your total application cost if you are not interested in hunting the general districts. If you wish to hunt other states, you can simply purchase the preference point and bonus point and move on. If you do plan on hunting the general season regardless, then put in for your district of choice. Because it’s a lottery system, there is always a chance of drawing! 

At zero points, hunters will generally find their best opportunities on the general units. Basically, if you have a desired top-tier district you’d like to hunt, then your best bet is to throw your name in the hat.

What can I do with 3 to 8 bonus points?

Hunters in this point range do have a few more options although these will still be highly limited. Nonresidents will now see a few more districts available with 100% odds, which can be an attractive use of points. These will primarily consist of units where the trophy potentials will be slightly higher than what can be found in the general units.

At this point level, both resident and nonresident applicants are within striking distance of HD 202 although odds for some of the other remaining tags will still be under 10%. This can be a good use of points, but hunters should be aware that this will be a very physical hunt. Trophy potential is high while deer densities are very low and nothing will come easy.

What can I expect with 10 or more deer bonus points?

At this point level, residents and nonresidents are nearing the maximum point capacity. Applying for anything other than the top-tier districts will merely result in burning points on hunting districts that could be drawn on far less. Odds will still be steep, but your odds simply won’t improve beyond this point with Montana’s drawing system.

Applicants at this point level will generally be gunning for HD 261, 262 and 270. For a slightly better chance, HD 210, 291, 303 and 441 can also provide good opportunities for mature bucks, albeit slightly smaller in size.

Find your draw odds

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