The Billings Outpost

Where have deer gone?

By BRAD MOLNAR - For The Outpost

In Montana we avoid discussions of religion and politics not because such would be rude but rather because it would cut into our time to debate hunting tactics and the policies of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Until Jan. 24 the FWP is holding listening sessions around the state and receiving public input on the tentative recommendations of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission. At the recent listening session held at Columbus High School, the primary focus was on the recommendation to eliminate the hunting of mule deer does and reduce the number of “B” tags for whitetail does.

In many areas of the state, “B” tags for whitetail does are proposed to be eliminated. The recommendations for the changing of district boundaries and season changes for elk, turkeys, antelope, moose, bighorn sheep, etc., drew only minimal comment. At the Columbus meeting, 12 hunters and landowners and six FWP personnel were present. Three FWP personnel had packed pistols and one wore a bulletproof vest.

Bob Gibson, the information officer for District 5, also known as the Billings District, did his best to keep the discussion on the proposals for our region, but the discussion was far ranging with many theories about what has caused the decline in population and the proper methods to protect mule deer. 

The charts presented for District 5 all showed mule deer numbers at their lowest since 1984. There have been many ups and downs in the population, but never have they been this low: 50 percent below the 40-year average. Conversely, according to Gibson, East Rosebud whitetail numbers are above 1985 numbers by more than 400 percent and “elk are through the roof.”


There was general agreement that the recent decline began with the tough winter of 2008 when fawn survival dropped to very low levels and has not rebounded. High fawn survival is when 80 fawns per 100 adults survive the winter. Average is 60 fawns per 100 adults. Poor is 30 per 100. Gibson said that he has recently seen areas of fewer than 12 surviving fawns per 100 adults.

The severe winter was not the only culprit. The population has since been hit hard by the hemorrhagic diseases, blue tongue and EDH, which are viruses spread by biting flies, and chronic wasting disease, which is spread by theoretically infectious proteins called “prions.” The possibility is being considered that the infected survivors of blue tongue and perhaps the other diseases may not be able to reproduce, which would contribute to the continued decline. 


Of course wolves were discussed, but Gibson said that though dispersed throughout the district they are concentrated in areas of high elk populations. He pointed out that throughout the district there have been historically low mouse and rabbit populations, which is the coyote’s main food supply. So naturally the coyote would work up the food chain and that would be deer - mainly mule deer. A very high coyote population in Hunting District 502 (Belfry north) was noted as a possible cause of low fawn survival in that area.

Gibson noted that the cougar population has been stable for many years so is not suspected in the low fawn survival rates. Several in attendance pointed out that new DNA tactics used in the Bitterroot Forest to count predators determined that there were twice as many cougars as the normal hunter days/kill ratio formula used for determining cougar populations indicated. Without using that technology, they asked, how could Gibson be sure of his estimates and the effects of cougars?

Gibson responded that the DNA technology was new, very expensive, and until it was available he had to rely on the traditional hunter ratio formula. But he said that in the Billings area and around Miles City, much of the new cougar population consists of cats migrating from South Dakota.

Rancher Bob VanOoston hosts a large number of hunters on his Block Management Area. His observation was that coyotes are pikers in the eating of antelope fawns compared to golden eagles. His real life observations are that golden eagles kill at least three times as many fawns as coyotes do.


J.W. Wester, representing the Laurel Rod and Gun Club, said the wholesale reduction of B tags was too broad a brush stroke and unsupported by scientific evidence, especially since the spring population count had not yet occurred.

Further, Wester offered the plea to stop issuing unlimited antelope archery tags. He testified that though antelope populations are not stressed by archers, the unlimited tags support the commercialization of wildlife by outfitting and fee hunting.

The largest point of contention was the maintenance of the six-week hunting season with the hunting of bucks only. The FWP position was that statistics show that the surviving bucks will be capable of breeding receptive does. Some members of the public felt that considering only the bred does to buck ratio overlooked the loss of a broad genetic base and the resultant resistance to disease that a large reduction of a small buck population could cause. They said that perhaps taking three weeks off the end of the season when mule deer bucks are deep in rut and therefore easier to harvest would be prudent, just like the C.M. Russell wildlife managers do in specific districts. 

Another suggestion was that the deer tags separated from nonresident combination licenses not be reissued even though they would be mainly for buck hunters.

There was general agreement that, since nonresidents took very few does, the solution was being borne almost totally by resident hunters.

Many felt that the FWP Commission had been too slow to respond to the perfect storm of disease, weather and predators. All believed that the effect of human hunters in a healthy population was negligible, but with the increased numbers of hunters on a now stricken population, we are looking at a situation that has not existed over the last 40 years.

Many felt that it was incumbent on wildlife managers to be conservative in their recommendations with the long-term needs of the resource put ahead of the short term recreational needs of the hunting public, the fiscal needs of FWP or the economic goals of outfitters and lease hunters.   

The numbers

Numbers for 2013 are not yet available.

In 2003 there were 119,237 resident general elk licenses and 357 resident elk B tags sold. In 2012 there were 127,125 resident general elk licenses and 20,001 resident elk B tags sold.

In 2003 there were 16,693 nonresident general elk tags and 20 nonresident elk B tags sold. In 2012 there were 16,641 general non-resident elk tags and 1,161 nonresident elk B tags sold.

In 2003 there were 145,774 general resident general deer tags and 62,209 resident B tags sold. In 2012 there were 150,396 general resident general deer tags and 61,769 resident B tags sold.

In 2003 there were 22,246 non-resident general deer licenses and 8,230 nonresident B tags sold. In 2012 there were 24,239 non-resident general deer licenses and 5,807 non-resident B tags sold.

Worthy of note is that the 5,807 nonresident deer B tags is down from the 13,194 non-resident deer B tags sold in 2008.

Since 2011 the commission has not reissued the split off B-10 deer tags. The number of nonresident deer combo tags has grown by 400 percent since 2003 and was at 8,491 in 2013. The outfitter-sponsored deer combo license ceased in 2011.

Public comment

The recommendations of FWP are just recommendations to the Commission of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The commissioners are political appointees and make the final determinations. The department just enforces those determinations.

The public is invited to comment by close of business Jan. 24. To email a comment to the Commission, Google MT FWP, click on Submit Public Comment and click on Fish and Wildlife.


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