Montana's mule deer population, harvest success, and hunter trends revealed
Trends in Montana's mule deer
Montana is a giant state, and it greatly varies from the west side to the east side. Mule deer populations, hunting pressure, and harvest success are also vastly different across Montana. Below is a full overview of Montana mule deer populations, harvest trends, resident and nonresident numbers, and much more.
Most know I love mule deer, and I love taking a deep dive into reports that states put out about these amazing animals. All the data below was pulled from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP). I then spent a long time crunching everything into graphics and tables in order to make sense of the data. Be warned... this article is data-heavy!
How to use this data
Let’s say you have a general season Montana deer tag; now what? If you’re a resident or a nonresident, there are decisions to be made on where to hunt, as you can hunt a ton of the state on a general season tag. This information, as well as all of the research that can be found on GOHUNT's Filtering 2.0, is a great place to start when trying to hone in on where you might hunt this fall or in future years. Note: Don't just assume that by looking at population trends and harvest trends, you have found a honey hole. There is a lot of data presented here, and keep in mind there can be some phenomenal hunting all across the state.
Montana Statewide Mule Deer Population Data
Statewide, mule deer populations in Montana during the 2022 season were hovering around 249,758, which is down 35.33% from a peak in 2017 at 386,175, but still vastly higher than the low in 2012 of 211,360. So overall, the Montana mule deer population is up 18.17% in the past eleven years. You’ll see Montana mule deer numbers have seen several peaks and valleys in the past 18 years.
Statewide Hunting Region Map
Montana is broken up into seven different hunting regions. For a general season rifle tag, in 2023, you have a total of 118 Hunt Districts that you can hunt with that tag. This is where Filtering 2.0 can vastly cut the learning curve in trying to figure out where to hunt.
Region by region Montana mule deer breakdown
The graphic below showcases a region-by-region heatmap of mule deer populations in Montana from 2022.
To make it easier to see, the following are each region's mule deer population totals from 2022:
- Region 1 = 6,761
- Region 2 = 9,607
- Region 3 = 42,602
- Region 4 = 56,253
- Region 5 = 24,980
- Region 6 = 50,932
- Region 7 = 58,623
When comparing the region-by-region population graphic above with the region harvest graphic below, you'll quickly notice that the regions with a high mule deer population equals a higher buck harvest, which, in a sense, shouldn't come as no surprise (but keep in mind there are other factors for this as well and so more data will be needed to dive in further in this area). The maps are pretty much a complete mirror of each other.
5 and 10-year trending data
The graphic below is another one I want to spend some time pointing out. It shows a 5-year trend in the number of mule deer bucks taken by each region. You'll notice that Regions 1, 2, and 3 all follow a very similar trend with their 5-year buck harvest average. Regions 4, 5, 6, and 7 pretty much show that in 2022 (and even 2021), the number of mule deer bucks taken in those regions are slipping from their baseline averages.
Compare this with a look at the 10-year average, and a similar picture is described with regions 4, 5, 6, and 7 having larger swings in how many bucks are killed each year. But... the lower number of bucks taken in recent years is not an anomaly.
10-year average mule deer bucks killed compared to 2022
When trying to find a place to hunt in Montana, remember the vast amount of private lands that are enrolled into FWPs Block Management Program. Learn more about this program here. Also, be sure to check out each property with a link to the rules of each BMA on GOHUNT Maps. Once you are in GOHUNT Maps, tap on the Library, then Select Montana. Under "Access," turn on Block Management and Block Management Sign-In Boxes.
Region 1 - Overview, population, and harvest trends
Region 1 is found in the northwest corner of the state and features some of the roughest and toughest country to hunt. This area experiences heavy snowfall and rain throughout the year, which leads to incredible amounts of dense ground cover. This vegetation, combined with steep ridges that top out in impassable rocky cliffs, gives hunters a physically demanding hunt. Mule deer are typically found in lower densities here; however, they have the potential to turn into mature, dark-antlered giants thanks to the terrain and cover. The overall trophy potential is generally lower in this area, but that figure can be slightly skewed due to the fact that bucks can easily grow old, never see a hunter, and die in this country. Winterkill can be a concern if heavy snowfall hits this region. While this is a physically demanding area of the state, this region will present hunters with unparalleled beauty and a hard-earned opportunity.
Region 2 - Overview, population, and harvest trends
Region 2, found on the extreme western edge of the state, is home to the famous Bitterroot Valley though hunting mule deer in this area isn't exactly on par with what it used to be, but don't get me wrong, this is still a phenomenal region. Going against the norm are Hunt Districts 261, 262, and 270 which provide some of the biggest mule deer in the state, with a handful eclipsing the 200” mark taken every year. With that comes extremely tough draw odds for both residents and nonresidents. Check out the draw odds to see for yourself. Hunting competition will be high around the city of Missoula, which is located at the heart of the region. In the northern end of the area, hunters will encounter dense forests similar to Region 1 before the terrain and vegetation transition into more open and sage-covered slopes on the southern end. Previous logging and mining activity can be found across much of the region, providing hunters with easy access into the backcountry and making navigation and avoiding crowds somewhat difficult. Winterkill could be a minor concern in this area if heavy snowfall hits, though for the most part, it is not expected to make a huge impact.
Region 3 - Overview, population, and harvest trends
The southwest corner of the state holds good populations of mule deer and also houses great wintering grounds for migratory herds of mule deer. Region 3 attracts a lot of rifle elk hunters, which can really increase competition during the any legal weapon general season. More opportunities for backcountry backpack-style hunting can be found here for hunters looking to distance themselves from the competition. This will help hunters find older bucks. Wolves continue to be a problem in this area during winter months though hunting and trapping efforts have somewhat curbed hunter-wolf altercations during the season. This area holds some of the highest concentrations of grizzlies and experiences the bulk of hunter and bear encounters. This problem is exemplified in areas immediately surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
Region 4 - Overview, population, and harvest trends
Region 4 is found in the north-central portion of the state and offers an incredible array of terrain, ranging from steep, heavily forested slopes to sage-covered coulees in the Missouri River Breaks. The competition will be high in most areas though hunters can still find areas to escape deep into the backcountry. The northern part of the region features large expanses of private land, which can make access difficult though some great bucks can be found here. On the western side of the area, hunters can hunt the famed Rocky Mountain Front, which features breathtaking scenery, very rugged country, and excellent mule deer hunting. Grizzlies are also prevalent in this area, and proper precautions must be adhered to. Predation on the western side of the region has been reduced again thanks to hunting and trapping efforts. The eastern side of the area tends to provide a better hunt for most hunters as deer can be glassed from a long distance, making it much easier to find larger-caliber bucks.
Region 5 - Overview, population, and harvest trends
This region, located in south central Montana, generally produces smaller bucks compared to the rest of the state; however, some great deer are taken every year. Large ranches found here will hold large populations of deer, and competition on the public lands surrounding these areas can be tight. On the southern end of the region, hunters can find access to the Custer-Gallatin Forest, which can provide ample amounts of country to escape crowds. Be aware that getting into the backcountry can be very physically demanding, and game densities are very low.
Region 6 - Overview, population, and harvest trends
Region 6 is an area that will see large amounts of hunters heading into the Missouri River Breaks, although some incredible hunting can also be found in the surrounding districts. Private lands dominate much of this area though sections of BLM land can provide hunters with great opportunities to escape the crowds and search for pockets of unpressured deer. The terrain here is mostly comprised of rolling hills with pockets of heavy timber and sage-covered coulees. Glassing is king in this country, and optics will play a pivotal role in the success of anyone hunting here.
Region 7 - Overview, population, and harvest trends
One of the most popular regions for mule deer as it possesses the highest population of deer, this area will experience lots of pressure from other hunters. Pay close attention to sections of public land within the sea of private ranches; this can provide hunters with great opportunities to find mature deer. While most hunters will be seeking mule deer, there is some great whitetail here, too, with some bucks even reaching the 140” mark.
Montana mule deer harvest data
The graph below shows the total harvest of all Montana mule deer, and also breaks out total buck, doe and fawn harvest.
The next graph breaks down the percentage of mule deer bucks with 4 points or more.
Resident and nonresident breakdown
Now let's take a look at some resident and nonresident information. First up, the graphics below show trends in resident and nonresident deer hunters from 2004-2022. Note: this isn't directly mule deer hunters, as the data could include whitetail hunters.
Keep in mind the y-axis values are greatly different for these two graphics because there are so many more resident hunters, but there is some very interesting data presented. If you take a look at the 19-year average of 124,885 resident and 26,979 nonresident deer hunters and compare that with the 2022 season, you'll see that residents are -7.45% below the 19-year average and nonresidents are 8.06% above the 19-year average.
And again, since the y-axis is so vastly different from the above resident and nonresident graphs, I know some will point to that, so here are both residents and nonresidents plotted on the same graph, and you'll see things are a little more smoothed out.
The graphic below is another interesting one. The rolling 19-year average is residents take roughly 26,967 bucks per year, and nonresidents take 10,465. Broken out by an average percentage over 19 years, residents take an average of 72.04% of the bucks per year, and nonresidents take 27.96%.
Days per hunter for residents and nonresidents
This information doesn't really paint a complete picture, as most years, FWP doesn't provide this data. In 2021 residents averaged 8 days of hunting, and nonresidents averaged 6 days. In 2019 residents averaged 8 days of hunting, and nonresidents averaged 6 days.
The graphic below has some really interesting things to point out! It seems that residents have a distinct advantage of taking bucks in Regions 1 through 5. Then, the nonresident pressure on bucks increased in Region 6 and 7 to the point where nonresidents took more bucks than residents in Region 7 during the 2022 season.
Below is a look at the same information as above, but in actual numbers of bucks taken by residents and nonresidents in each region.
If you made it this far, I tip my hat to you! Hopefully, all this data I presented helps paint a picture of where you might want to hunt, but even more importantly, it showcases some of the pressures that Montana is currently facing with the management of mule deer, battling the unforeseen drought and hard winters, plus the demand of what the public wants in terms of opportunity. Currently, Montana doesn't have mandatory harvest reporting, so the harvest numbers presented in this article are based on their surveys. Again, you've probably heard me say this a lot, but I hope this helps you find ways to think outside the box when it comes to where you want to hunt in Montana and even how you will apply when it comes to the limited/special draw hunts or general season mule deer hunts. At the end of the day, I love data, and I truly enjoyed putting this piece together. Keep in mind there's a lot more that could be looked at and other pieces of data to incorporate into this, but I'll save that for another day.