KALISPELL - A cool, wet summer grew lots of green this year, and now that green is growing lots of big deer and elk - record numbers in some parts of western Montana.
“There’s quite a bit of annual variation in antler growth, based on how much forage is available,” said Mike Thompson, “and this year an abundance of forage means some real nice bucks and bulls. We’ve got elk and deer scattered from the tops of the mountains all the way down to the farmers’ fields.”The outlook for hunters, he said, "is really very good." Thompson is the Missoula-based regional wildlife manager for the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, tracking critters across west-central Montana. He keeps a particularly close watch on elk, whose numbers coming into the 2008 hunting season “are very, very good, at or near modern-day highs.”Sure, elk herds aren’t as good as they could be high in the upper Bitterroot, especially on the west side of the drainage, and populations have leveled off out at Fish Creek, near Superior. And the Middle Fork of Rock Creek isn’t seeing healthy increases either, for some reason.
“Who knows for sure?” Thompson said. “In my experience, these things are usually more complicated than they seem.”
But whatever the reason, herds holding steady or in slight decline “make up an awfully small portion of the whole region. Overall, west-central Montana is growing a bumper crop of elk.”
Both sides of the Deerlodge Valley are looking quite good, in fact, as are the wilds around Ovando.
And this year’s spring surveys showed the region’s elk numbers “higher than we’ve ever been,” Thompson said.
Same goes for whitetail deer. Thompson’s biologists spent some time hunting deer earlier this year, down in the lower Clark Fork around Superior. They were worried, he said, that a long winter might have hurt fawn survival.
“But they were fine,” he said of the next generation. His crews counted 40 fawns per 100 adults, “which is really quite good, especially for that country.”
Because after the snowmelt came all that green browse, which for months has fattened the herds and provided the nutrition required to grow big racks.
In fact, biologists from across western Montana are reporting large numbers of large bucks, reflecting not just a good growing season but also an echo of a hard winter now 10 years past.
In the winter of 1996-1997, record snows - particularly in the low country - wiped out huge herds of Montana game. Up in the Flathead Valley, FWP wildlife biologist John Vore reported that 20 percent of the elk he was studying died that winter, and whitetail deer fared far worse.
“It was a tremendous loss,” Vore said. “That kind of winter can make a substantial impact in population numbers.”
So much impact that Thompson and his peers throughout the region greatly reduced the number of doe licenses available in subsequent years. “We practically shut down our doe harvest after that winter,” he said.
Which meant more does grew up to produce more fawns, which grew up to produce more deer still. Now, the echo of the hard winter and the FWP response can be heard in the woods - the rattle of big bucks, finally mature and at their peak at age 6 or 7.
Those bucks haven’t started into the rut just yet - won’t until November - but the elk already are bugling and bowhunters are practicing their calls.
The bow season begins this Saturday, a long Indian summer before the Oct. 26 opening of the general rifle season, and both Vore and Thompson predict a successful season for hunters.
Thompson’s paying special attention to the Rattlesnake Wilderness hunt near Missoula, because elk there already have been spilling out of the hills and onto nearby farmland. He has four “damage hunts” already on the ground, and more in the works, as elk and deer chew through farmers’ fields.
One ranch near Butler Creek seems to be attracting lots of Rattlesnake elk, he said, and a damage hunt just might push them back into the wilderness in time for the season there.
“Or it might just push them onto the neighbor’s place,” he said. “You never know. These elk have learned the fields give them everything they need, so why work for it up in the mountains?”
Farther north, near the Flathead, Vore’s annual survey crews counted nearly 5,000 deer this past spring, with about 30 fawns per 100 adults. Some young whitetails likely were lost to the long and lingering winter, he said, “but the elk are doing pretty darn good. Especially down in the Swan. The population is definitely growing down there.”
Wildlife managers have limited cow tags there, allowing the herd to grow in a place with little agricultural conflict. “It’s not a big farming valley,” Vore said of the Swan, “so we’d just as soon grow some elk in there.”
Generally speaking, northwest Montana doesn’t have the elk densities of southwest Montana - areas around Bozeman and Dillon have 10 times the elk density, as do areas around Libby - but the elk that are here tend to be trophy size. It’s such thick country, Vore said, so jungly that it’s mighty hard to hunt.
So elk tend to grow old here, hidden in dark forest depths and maturing into monsters.
“I think the strongest places this season, outside the Swan, will be up in that Thompson River-Clark Fork country,” Vore predicted.
It’s tough to pin down, though. During the early bowhunt, “the elk are still spread out across the entire landscape. They could be anywhere.”
They’re surely up the South and Middle forks of the Flathead River, he said, “but again, that’s hard country to hunt.” It’s remote and wild and steep and thick.
Which is exactly how the elk like it, and the mule deer, too.
“Boy I saw some nice mule deer bucks up high in the goat rocks of the Bob Marshall,” Vore said after a recent wildlife monitoring flight. “If you’re looking for a big mule deer buck, I’d look way up high.”
All of which will change, of course, as fall wears on and the rut begins.
“Then they’ll be putting on a lot of miles, looking for a girlfriend,” Vore said.
That’s the time to rattle them in, and it’s also the time for the general season.
For now, however, the bowhunters own the woods, and all is quiet and still and waiting, watching and stalking and bugling.
“When it gets going,” Thompson predicted, “it’s going to be a very successful general season. Until then, I think the bowhunters are going to have a pretty good time out there.”This story first appeared in the Missoulian on Spetember 7, 2008