Mule deer, whitetail populations strong in northeastern Montana

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Whitetail does

Whitetail populations in northeastern Montana fared well through the winter according to recently completed Fish, Wildlife & Parks counts.

Mule deer populations are above average while whitetail numbers are stable across Region 6 in northeastern Montana, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists.

The tallies were compiled in the wake of the staff’s completion of its 2020 post-season and winter aerial surveys of deer populations, along with some spring ground surveys. 

For mule deer, 11 trend areas in Region 6 are surveyed two times each year from the air: once after the hunting season and once in early spring. The post-season survey was completed in December and January; however, the spring surveys were not completed due to concerns with the COVID-19 virus and distancing guidelines that are unavoidable in a plane.

Instead, ground counts for mule deer were collected by area biologists to estimate over-winter survival. While total deer counts tend to be variable across Region 6, FWP biologist Ryan Williamson of Outlook said the 2020 surveys indicate mule deer populations are healthy.

“Mule deer numbers continue to remain well above average across the region,” he said.

The post-hunting-season surveys showed the regionwide mule deer trends at 79% above average, and 15% above the previous year’s survey. While regional numbers indicate above average mule deer levels overall, differences are seen across the region and in isolated areas, as well. According to Williamson, mule deer numbers from individual mule deer trend areas range from average to well above average.

“Regionwide the fawn numbers continue to do quite well,” Williamson said.

The post-season survey showed 61 fawns per 100 adults, which is above the average of 55 fawns per 100 adults. Although the mule deer numbers are variable across the region, there was little difference between the eastern and western portions of the region. Additionally, spring ground classifications of mule deer herds and estimated fawn ratios indicate good over-winter survival.

Data collected during mule deer surveys are only one factor in deer management recommendations.

“The prior year’s harvest, weather and habitat factors — as well as additional input gathered from landowners, hunters, the general public and other agencies — are all considered by the Fish and Wildlife Commission for season and quota setting decisions,” Williamson explained.

Winter mortality was likely minimal across the region during based on observations and reports.

“A small amount of winter mortality was observed throughout the region, but no significant mortality events were observed due to the generally mild winter throughout the region,” Williamson said. “The mule deer appeared to have over-wintered well and came into spring in good shape.”

For 2020, the general hunting districts will be managed under the liberal regulation for mule deer, which includes either-sex for a general deer license (A-tag), as well as additional antlerless B licenses. Hunting district 652 is the only limited-permit district for bucks.

The B license application deadline is June 1 and any surplus B licenses will go on sale in early August.

“With liberal numbers of antlerless mule deer B licenses and the need for hunters to play their role in helping to manage deer numbers, there are plenty of opportunities for hunters to fill their freezers this fall,” said Scott Thompson, Region 6 wildlife manager.

Whitetail deer

White-tailed deer densities continue to remain stable across the region, as well. Williamson said surveys have been completed in five areas across Region 6. Due to more uniform habitat, the white-tailed deer surveys tend to look at deer density, as opposed to total numbers, for trends.

The 2020 survey show white-tailed deer density averages 10.6 deer per square mile across the trend areas, which is right at the long-term average of 10.7 deer per square mile. The surveys did see a decrease from the 2019 survey of 9%.

White-tailed deer densities tend to be more stable in the eastern part of the region, but winter severity continues to play a role in concentrating deer into the trend areas.

“Although the winter surveys were slightly down, the ‘prairie deer’ are still near average and have remained stable in the last decade,” Williamson said. “The western trend areas along the Milk River continue to improve with overall densities now at 7% below average along the Milk River.”

A single-region antlerless whitetail B license will again be available for over the counter purchase starting Aug. 10. The licenses will be limited to one per hunter. Additionally, 3,000 antlerless whitetail B licenses will be available this fall with applications due at the June 1 deadline. Any surplus licenses will go on sale in early August.

“We feel this level of antlerless white-tailed deer harvest is needed to maintain populations at the current average levels,” Thompson said. “We don’t want to return to the extremely high numbers of whitetails in some areas of Region 6 that we saw a dozen years ago.” 

“With chronic wasting disease detected in many Region 6 hunting districts, more emphasis is put on managing higher concentrations and densities of deer as well as proper disposal of deer carcasses to reduce the threat of spread to other areas of the state,” Williamson said. “Higher deer densities tend to influence the spread of the disease, so we take that into consideration when developing hunting season regulations.”

Hunters are encouraged to keep informed on the current CWD regulations for carcass disposal and testing opportunities this fall.