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.