Montana Whitetail Numbers Down


Mar 11, 2001
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More deer, more mule deer bucks, this winter.

Mark Henckel, Billings Gazette


The talk among wildlife biologists these days isn’t just about how many mule deer there are across Eastern Montana. It’s also about how many bucks – and really nice bucks – that are still out there in the wake of the fall hunting seasons.

Wildlife biologists are just now wrapping up their post-hunting-season deer survey flights. These flights track trend areas that are monitored each year and offer a glimpse at fawn/doe and buck/doe ratios in early winter.

Almost universally, the results indicate good survival of fawns born last spring and, overall, mule deer numbers continue to rise. Without much winter to contend with so far this year, survival into spring should be very good.

“Overall, deer health looks good,” said Harold Wentland, wildlife manager for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at Glasgow, on Monday. “There has been no winter and no cold until today. When we get a winter that kills these deer, it usually starts hard in late November. Almost no matter what happens now, we’re out of the woods.”

Fawn/doe ratios

Production figures – the fawn/doe ratios – vary by trend area, but across much of Eastern Montana they’re running at an average of about 60 fawns per 100 does for mule deer. Some trend areas are up in the 70s. Others are down in the upper 40s and 50s per 100 does. However, all those numbers, coupled with a mild winter, would indicate a growth in overall deer numbers.

The only trouble spots for mule deer appear to be parts of Central Montana that were hard-hit by drought.

“On the Charles M. Russell (National Wildlife Refuge) trend area, there were only 34 fawns per 100 does,” said Tom Stivers, wildlife biologist at Lewistown. “The total number of deer wasn’t much different than last year – that 34 fawns was a break-even point and we haven’t gained any ground from last year. We’re still a piece away from the long-term average for that area.”

On trend areas southwest of the Missouri Breaks, Stivers also found lower fawn numbers with areas hitting 46 and even down to 19 fawns per 100 does.

“That’s probably a combination of some drought and predation,” he said. “There are still a lot of deer on the landscape in that area, but the populations aren’t growing. We’re treading water, at best.”

Buck/doe ratios

But what biologists were talking the most about was the good number of bucks they were finding on their surveys.

“In the last three years, we’ve had really good recruitment,” said John Ensign, wildlife manager at Miles City. “You’ve got three good, young, strong age classes that will dominate. As those age classes become older, you’re going to have some strong, mature bucks coming up.”

Ensign said his buck/doe ratios ran from a low of 19 up to a high of 43 per 100 does for Region Seven of Eastern Montana.

Wentland’s numbers for Region Six, across Northern Montana, ranged from 19 to 36.

In Region Five of Southcentral Montana, Shawn Stewart at Red Lodge reported ratios that ranged from 24 to 27 bucks per 100 does. Claire Simmons at Big Timber reported 18 to 31 per 100 does and Jay Newell at Roundup reported 17 to 39 per 100 does.

None of these buck figures include the fawns which will be sprouting their first antlers in the summer ahead.

“On our census area on the Stillwater, we had 27 bucks per 100 does and East of Red Lodge, we had 15 bucks per 100 does. Those are the best it has been in years and years and years,” Stewart said.

Simmons and Newell also reported some of their trend areas had the healthiest buck numbers they had ever seen there.

Simmons added, “There are going to be a lot of bucks in the 2, 3, and 4-year-old age category. A lot of them are three and four-point bucks now. The potential is to have a lot of pretty decent bucks running around next fall.”

Whitetail numbers down

While the survey flights primarily concentrated on mule deer, biologists did do some checking on whitetails in the wake of the widespread outbreak of EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) last summer and fall.

In some areas, biologists found that this fatal deer disease did have a significant impact on whitetail populations.

Newell flew the Musselshell River and reported, “I counted 50 whitetails in the whole stretch of river– that’s down from 200 the last time I counted it. The area hardest hit was from Shawmut to Delphia. It was hit to a lesser degree from Delphia down to Melstone and from Shawmut up to Harlowton.”

On the Yellowstone between Billings and Custer, Jay Watson said, “Our whitetail numbers were off about 40 percent – even more in some areas. There are still deer there, but they were definitely hit.”

And on the Milk River, east of Glasgow, Wentland reported, “West of Saco, the EHD took a substantial number of whitetails. In the area from Malta to Havre, we heard from over 100 landowners and we could account for 700 to 1,000 dead whitetails – and that is just what they saw. EHD took better than half of the whitetails in that area.”

Wentland added that severe conditions last winter also took about half of the whitetails in the Plentywood area.

“We had that big ice storm and tough winter conditions and that hammered them over there,” he said. “We also held that special season last year. It probably was the best thing we could have done. We just converted them to the freezer, rather than to the coyote bellies.”
Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted by phone at: (406) 657-1395, or by e-mail at:

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