If you want to hunt mule deer this fall, then southeastern Montana is the place to go, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Mule deer populations have been struggling in much of the West, but not so in the prairies and grasslands of southeastern Montana. FWP Region 7 Supervisor Brad Schmitz said the mule deer population is almost 50 percent above the long-term average, based upon recent counts, and production of fawns over the past three years has been good. So Schmitz wants to head off a population surge by almost doubling the number of mule deer doe tags.
On Thursday, he asked the FWP commission to approve increasing the number of mule deer doe tags or “B licenses” to 7,500 from 4,500 in Region 7.
“(There were some) areas in my region that I was most tenuous about. But looking at the numbers and after this spring, I’m not that concerned anymore. When I hear the overall condition of these young brood does, there’s just no stopping this train at this point,” Schmitz said.
Big Game Chief John Vore said usually only half of the total tags end up on harvested animals, so probably less than 4,000 does would be taken.
Schmitz anticipated that some hunters might be wary of killing more does when the population recently suffered a dramatic decrease due to the harsh winter of 2011 and an uptick in diseases such as epizootic hemorrhagic disease and bluetongue.
In response to the 2012 die-off, the commission made the difficult decision of eliminating mule deer “B” tags statewide in December 2013. A year later, when it looked like the herds were rebounding slightly, a few B tags were reinstated.
Now Schmitz wants to bump the total up more to avert game damage problems with landowners. About 85 percent of Region 7 is private property, Schmitz said.
The increase in B tags is in keeping with the proactive approach FWP takes with mule deer – known as adaptive harvest management - to avoid the large population swings that used to occur prior to 1982, Vore said. Wildlife managers try to keep the population cycling between 20 percent above and 30 percent below the long-term average. As soon as biologists see an upswing in population, tools are applied to dampen the trend.
“Mule deer management is kind of counter-intuitive. It’s disturbing to people when we start issuing an increased number of doe licenses when the population is coming back. But you want to get ahead of that curve,” Vore said.
Schmitz said landowners have indicated that they would welcome hunters in order to avoid game damage. Some participate in block management but many others are open to those who ask permission.
“We’ll need to work on our PR to push people where we need them or to take them from areas where there are too many. Landowners really help us with that though. They’ll call up and tell us they’re getting too many doe hunters,” Schmitz said.
Prior to the 2011 die-off, Region 7 offered 11,000 “B” tags, so Schmitz also asked that the upper limit of the B tag quota be set at 11,000 rather than 5,500. That would allow the commission to bump the number of B tags up to 11,000 next year if the mule deer population continues to thrive.
But disease can always raise its ugly head again.
Recently, a new mule deer disease was identified in Wyoming study, not far from Region 7. The disease - adenovirus hemorrhagic disease – was found to have killed one-third of the 52 fawns collared by Wyoming Fish and Game. AHD symptoms resemble those of EHD and bluetongue and can kill within three to five days of exposure. Blood tests have revealed that deer in Montana have been exposed to the disease but FWP hasn’t documented any die-offs.
Chronic wasting disease - a chronic, fatal disease of the central nervous system that infects deer, elk and in rare cases, moose - is an even greater concern, and it’s inching closer to Montana from the south. Wyoming Game and Fish found infected mule deer near Cody, Wyo., in April.
The commission approved the quota changes to be put out for public comment until June 24. The proposal will be considered for final approval on July 14.