Since I am also from MT, and have been hunting public land in the state for the last 18 years, I wanted to put my two cents in. I agree with MT Mike that the genetics are still out there in MT; thanks to some rough backcountry, private landowners that manage their deer, and a few limited entry areas that are managed correctly. I hunt as hard as anyone out there, ofter spending 3-7 days out with my camp on my back. I have hunted just about everywhere in the state from the "Bob", the eastern MT plains/breaks, Mission mtns backcountry, the heavily wooded western part of the state, and the decimated southwestern corner of the state.
Its sad what has happened and continues to happen to the mule deer in MT. I remember when I use to hunt the Custer National Forest in eastern MT and would see 20-30 bucks per day, and would see hundreds of does/fawns. I was there last year in the peak of the rut (Thanksgiving week) and I was blown away by the amount of hunters first of all, the extremely low numbers of bucks, and the even sadder number of does/fawns that I saw. When I use to hunt in the Bob Marshall Wilderness I never saw overwhelming amounts of deer, but I used to see at least 30-50% more than I do now, hunting the same areas at the same times of the year. I grew up in Southwestern MT (Dillon) and the mule deer numbers there are so sad (except for Lima Peaks unit because its limited entry) that I wouldn't even consider harvesting a mule deer in that area for fear that it was the last living one around (again except for private land where folks like me can't hunt)!!! What is even sadder is that the Montana FWP has barely cut down the doe/fawn tags (not unlimited anymore), they are still allowing unlimited hunting for 6 full weeks with about half of it during the rut, and the horrible drought we've been experiencing isn't helping matters either. To top it all off, the commission has now moved the hunting season back a week so that even more of the UNLIMITED hunting pressure is in the peak of the rut. These poor deer on public land don't stand a chance and will never get to express the genetics that they carry!!!!
I'm not saying that the FWP needs to micro-manage mule deer like they do in other states like CO, WY (for non-residents), or NV, and I don't pretend to be a wildlife biologist, but I can see from my own hunting experiences that something needs to change!!! If we would just stop the unlimited deer hunting before the rut, like they do in several units in North-Central MT, I think it would really help. I also don't think that shooting literally 1000's of doe/fawns is helping any either!!!
I don't want to make it sound like the mule deer hunting in MT is terrible, but it's a far cry from what it once was and an even farther cry from what I think it should be. Having harvested some great MT bucks (one 186" typical 4x4 and one 193" non-typical) I still believe its do able with some very hard hunting and patience. I do enjoy getting to hunt mule deer anywhere in the state, every year on a general tag, but I would be willing to have to apply like many states make you. I am thankful however that other states do care about their mule deer populations and manage them accordingly, and I'll continue to apply/hunt these states as long as they'll have me.
Since FWP started introducing the Unlimited Mule Deer Buck by Permit Only in the units around Anaconda there has been a DRAMATIC improvement in the quality of bucks in those units in only a three or four year period. It used to be that every high school kid with a pick-up and rifle would shoot the first two-point buck they saw (full admission, myself included). But by forcing you to pick a unit, even though the tags are unlimited, it eliminated a ton of potential hunters in those units simply because the general tag was a better tag. It's amazing that in such a short amount of time, you can go from seeing just does in the alfalfa fields in the summers, to routinely seeing four-point bucks with those does. The units are by no means a destination hunt, but they are at least much improved from what they were.
Originally Posted by medtech10
The other thing is that it changes the culture of what hunters take and what they pass. A buck that one would have been taken simply because it's the only buck you'll see in the area has turned into a passable buck because the hunter knows there are better bucks around. I even convinced my dad to pass on a non-typical 6x5 on our land a couple years ago simply because we knew there were better bucks around now and the buck had some growing to do. That wouldn't have really happened before they changed the regs. This seems like a good method that FWP could expand upon and still be received well with the hunting community in Montana. This has also increased the hunting pressure on whitetails which seems like a good thing to me.
You must have a couple biologists in your neck of the woods that have recognized that something needs to be done. I'm not sure if that management strategy is the right thing to do, but at least it is something! From reading your post it sounds like it is definitely helping there. I just feel like the mule deer management (which is NO management) in MT is so prehistoric it's embarrassing! Unlimited rut hunting for mule deer for nearly the entire rut is not management, it's a JOKE!!!!!
I know my mind set has changed over the years. I think serious mule deer hunters today need to be willing to walk away at the end of the season with a tag in hand as opposed to just filling the tag with a marginal one. I was young once too, and took a few that I would never take today. Everybody has to get a few under their belt to get the passion going. I just hope that I can practice what I preach when the time comes.
My brother and I hunted Steens in Oregon last year, and got a couple good ones. During the short time we were there, we saw quite a few small bucks also. I saw a young 3 point that was pushing 25 wide, which gives me hope for the future there. The unfortunate thing we saw(heard) was the taking of small bucks even by out of state guys who burned 8 or 10 points to get there. I know its hard to avoid the excitement, but we need to try our best to start every day with an expectation and "try" not to settle for anything less.
The association with the people on this forum is truly an inspiration to hunt hard and hold out for the trophies that can be found. I think the most important thing is to know what kind of expectation is realistic for the aerea you are in.
I am just babbling now. i need to go back to work.
I agree ttoadman, here in NV I ate my tag last year. Then looking at the overall harvest stats here, there were 8,894 bucks taken last year. Of those, 5,814 bucks were 3 points or less. Thats 65% of the take being immature or young. Im curious to see what the quota numbers will be again this year. If NDOW decides to do the same outrageous numbers and the stats hold steady, there will not be any quality left in NV. Like you said, if folks could hold off shooting bambi and look for mature deer, the herd quality will not suffer. Yes you may end the season empty handed, but the future hunting quality will still be in take.
I think that what you guys are expressing in this thread is what a lot of us are thinking about the management of mule deer. Here in Montana we got spoiled back in the 60’s, 70’s, etc. when we could have it all – i.e., the whole state to hunt, 5-weeks to hunt, lots of deer, not many hunters and so on. Well, it couldn’t last. Now there are too many hunters and not enough older age class bucks. Also, I think the mule deer is appreciated much more now-a-days as a top notch trophy animal, resulting in a higher percentage of us hunting selectively for the older bucks. There was a period back in the 1980’s when our Fish & Game professionals raised the issue of managing for quality with shorter seasons and limitations on areas a hunter could hunt bucks in a given year. Unfortunately, as I remember it, hunters expressed loud and clear they wanted to continue the 5-week seasons and have the ability to hunt statewide. Montana continued to manage for maximum opportunity and our quality continued to go down hill.
In more recent times our FWP has actually started a slow migration towards managing for quality with limited quotas, especially in certain areas with the available habitat and good genetics. Also, as has been mentioned, there are an increasing number of units to hunt mule deer bucks only if you commit to hunting them in that unit only. I think these changes are good. I encourage all of you with strong feelings about the quality of our mule deer population to let FWP know that you favor what they have done in this area and encourage further steps towards quality management in the future. My point in showing the tremendous potential in these areas where I like to hunt, is to stimulate more interest in reducing the pressure on our mule deer bucks so we can enjoy a balanced age structure in more of our deer herds and have a chance of seeing a buck like those in the pictures at the beginning of this thread.