Hunting Season Is Right Around The Corner, Here Is Your 2020 Big Game Hunting Forecast
Are you ready for hunting season? FWP can help. In addition to the following hunting forecast, FWP provides online information about hunting access, including our popular Block Management Program. Through the program, we coordinate with landowners to provide hunting access to more than 7 million acres of private land.
The interactive Hunt Planner map allows users to look at information for various species, including hunting districts and regulations. The hunt planner interactive map is a great way to access our block management information, so if you’re planning a hunt in a certain area, you can see if there are Block Management Areas available to expand your opportunity.
And, as always, you can contact our helpful staff at any of our regional offices around the state. They’re happy to help and can often get you pointed in the right direction with just a few simple tips.
Montana has some of the longest hunting seasons in the West, healthy herds of game and access to millions of acres of public land. However, hunters must be mindful of fire danger and of private landowners who are facing grass shortages, poor crop production and fatigue from monitoring for fire. Hunter harvest helps to reduce wildlife densities on a stressed landscape, and perhaps to help lessen winter depredation on haystacks or winter range.
Here are a few things hunters can do to show respect for private landowners during this dry season:
avoid vehicle use in areas with dry grass in the median
use caution when parking in areas with dry vegetation
report smoke or any signs of fire to local officials
carry a fire extinguisher or water to quickly snuff any potential fires.
Destination: NORTHWEST MONTANA
Northwest Montana experienced a mild winter last year, which resulted in good adult and fawn survival for white-tailed deer. Overall numbers should be similar or slightly higher than last year. There should also be an increase in the number of yearling bucks on the landscape.
In 2019, FWP detected chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer, mule deer, and moose in the Libby area. Hunters need to be aware of the Libby CWD Management Zone, which includes portions of HDs 100, 103 and 104. Testing for CWD is voluntary, and harvested animals can be checked at the Libby Special CWD Hunt Sampling Station (Montana Department of Transportation shop on US Hwy 2, mile marker 35) during certain days of the week. Please check fwp.mt.gov for details.
This fall, hunters without game will be directed to quickly move through FWP check stations.
The mild winter resulted in increased adult and fawn survival of mule deer. Overall numbers should be similar last year with an increase in young bucks. Hunters are reminded to check the regulations as only antlered bucks may be harvested in Region 1 and there are areas in HD 103 and HD 109 that require a permit to hunt mule deer.
In areas where surveys were conducted, elk calf recruitment was higher than it has been in the last three years. Overall, elk numbers should be similar to last year. Elk hunting is challenging in northwest Montana due to difficult terrain, heavily forested areas and densities relatively lower than other area in Montana. Elk distribution will likely change from now through the archery season. Hunters are advised to do their homework and look for areas in the back country away from roads and high hunting pressure.
This fall, hunters without game will be directed to quickly move through FWP check stations.
Following decreases in moose harvest in Hunting District 105, FWP reduced the total number of licenses available to 12. Despite these statistics, FWP has consistently seen a much higher number of moose, including moose with calves, during collaring efforts (which happen to occur a little later than surveys each year). Rather than rely solely on survey and harvest data to tell us about trends in moose numbers, FWP began collaring moose in HD 105 (and in two other study areas) in 2013. Thus far, the study has revealed that none of the study areas’ moose populations are in dire straits, and the HD 105 study area has high adult cow survival rate.
Overall, black bear numbers appear to be steady in northwest Montana. Great berry crops this summer and fall could mean bears are dispersed, which may make them more challenging to find this fall. Look for areas with abundant food sources like huckleberries, service berries, choke cherries and mountain ash.
All successful bear hunters will be required to report their bear harvest through the FWP Harvest Reporting Line 1-877-FWP-WILD (1-877-397-9453) within 48 hours of harvest. Unlike in years past, FWP will not require or conduct a carcass inspection, hide seal or tooth collection. This fall season, FWP is asking successful bear hunters to voluntarily submit a bear tooth of harvested bears to FWP. The tooth will be sent to a laboratory where the age of the bear will be determined. FWP biologists use this age information, along with the sex of the bear, to manage bear populations in Montana. For more information, visit fwp.mt.gov.
Northwest Montana has abundant wolf numbers. Record harvests in the 2018 and 2019 seasons likely reduced numbers to some extent, but overall populations are healthy. Wolf license costs were reduced for the 2020 season. Despite good numbers, wolves can be difficult to find and often move long distances. If hunters want to be successful, scouting and understanding wolf behavior is important.
For information on hunting safely in grizzly country, please visit igbconline.org/hunters/.
Destination: WESTERN MONTANA
Elk aerial surveys in western Montana were interrupted by the COVID virus this spring. While counts were completed in the Upper Clark Fork before the COVID shutdown, elk counts using aircraft were not done in the rest of Region 2. Upper Clark Fork elk were found in good numbers, including the reappearances of elk that had been missing in the 2019 counts due to the hard winter. The mild winter of 2020 contributed to a rebound in overwinter calf survival, which was observed widely across Region 2, whether documented using aircraft or in ground surveys conducted in most of the region. Hunters hoping to participate in elk shoulder seasons this fall or winter are reminded to review the hunting regulations closely. Shoulder seasons over the past few years achieved their desired effect in many places, which means that elk regulations were adjusted this year to shorten or remove shoulder seasons in many districts. In most hunting districts, elk hunters will not find an over-the-counter B-License available this year for shoulder seasons.
White-tailed deer numbers have been on an upward trend in general, but previous hard winters have dampened fawn survival. The mild winter in 2020 was a welcome relief and fawn production looks good this summer. Good moisture and excellent forage production should benefit all deer.
Opportunities to hunt mule deer are somewhat limited in western Montana. Many districts require a permit or B-license, awarded through the statewide application and drawing process earlier this year. Mule deer hunters should plan to go high in the mountains for the best opportunity at bigger bucks. An emerging opportunity for hunters in Region 2 is to hunt mule deer on private lands, where numbers generally are growing. Again, pay close attention to the regulations to make sure you are properly licensed to hunt mule deer.
There are only a few antelope hunting opportunities in western Montana, where the population of antelope is around 400. Hunting is limited to a few hunters who received a license through a special drawing.
For more information on antelope, deer and elk numbers and hunting opportunities in western Montana, check out the FWP Region 2 Wildlife Quarterly, available online at fwp.mt.gov/regions/r2/wildlifeQuarterly.html.
Destination: SOUTHWEST MONTANA
As with most years, overall elk hunting success is expected to be influenced by snowfall. If early-season snow accumulation occurs, seasonal migrations toward winter range will soon follow, and more hunter harvest can be expected. If dry conditions continue through the fall, hunters should expect difficult elk hunting and average to below-average harvest.
Elk numbers are good around Helena, including hunting districts (HDs) 318, 335, 339 and 343. While no survey was completed for mule deer this spring, given two years of poor fawn recruitment, overall numbers are expected to be low for the area compared to past seasons and likely still below the long-term average. Doe licenses remain low in all these districts.
Elk numbers in the Big Belts (HDs 390 and 391) remain above objective, with a mild winter last year and low harvest last fall. Large numbers of elk can be found on private land where hunters must first secure landowner permission before hunting. National Forest land in HD 391 is open to brow-tined bull elk-only on a general license this year, which is a change from recent years. Also, elk shoulder seasons in HDs 390 and 391 will only run through Jan. 1 this year.
Deer numbers in HDs 390 and 391 have been down from long-term averages, particularly on National Forest land, with numbers being better on private land. This year there is no unlimited mule deer buck permit in these two districts; this was replaced with allowing hunters to harvest any antlered buck with a general license. Please consult the current regulations for updates.
Biologists observed lower-than-expected fawn production in antelope HD 371. But overwinter survival appears to be good, and antelope fawn production was good in districts 380 and 390.
Deer and elk numbers in the east Pintler, Beaverhead and Highland ranges (HDs 319, 321, 334, 340, 341 and 370) are stable, and hunters should expect comparable opportunities to last year. For HD 350, the liberal elk season in recent years has been effective in reducing the population, so the season is now back to a standard regulation with brow-tined bulls on the general license and limited antlerless harvest opportunity allocated through the drawing.
Antelope hunting districts managed by the Butte area wildlife biologist are surveyed every other year. This year HDs 341, 350 and 370 were flown. Populations in HDs 341 and 370 are robust while in HD 350 numbers are down slightly with a noticeable decline in fawn numbers, while the buck segment appears robust at 40 bucks per 100 does. Hunters with antelope HD 318 and 329 licenses are reminded that the boundary between these two districts has been changed and should check the regulations for the new boundary.
The Tendoy elk management unit (HDs 300, 302 and 328) continued to exceed management objectives after the 2019 hunting season, and long-term data trends indicate a stable population. Post-season 2019 counts in the Pioneer Mountains elk management unit (HDs 329, 331 and 332) were lower than last year and slightly below management objectives. However, counts remained slightly above the long-term average. Across the Pioneer elk management unit, the population appears relatively stable over the long term. However, the distribution of elk has changed over time. Elk in HD 331 have traditionally wintered largely within this district, but in recent years have opted to winter in adjoining districts. These sorts of distribution changes are a continuing challenge for elk management and for hunters looking for opportunities to harvest elk. Hunter success will continue to be influenced by snow accumulations that are sufficient to induce elk migration to accessible areas.
Spring mule deer counts in the East Pioneers (HD 331) and Lima Peaks (HD 300) were higher in 2020 than the previous year. Counts in both areas indicate population growth in recent years; however, counts in the East Pioneers continue to be lower than the long-term average. Post-hunting season classification surveys show above-average buck-to-doe ratios in recent years in the East Pioneers, Tendoy Mountains and Lima Peaks (HDs 331, 302 and 300). Buck harvest in Upper Horse Prairie (HD 328) has remained relatively stable since the mid-2000s. Recent buck harvest in the Horse Prairie/Bannack area continues to improve over the lows observed in the mid-2000s. The West Pioneer (HD 332) has seen a reduction in buck harvest over the past two years, similar to lows seen in the mid-2000s.
Recent pronghorn counts in the Lima Peaks (HD 301) and East Pioneers (HD 310) have been above average, and the long-term trend indicates stable (HD 301) to increasing (HD 310) numbers. Fawn production counts are highly variable but do show an increase over time in HD 301. In contrast, fawn production counts have been slightly below average in HD 310 in recent years. Recent pronghorn surveys in HD 300 and HD 329 show continued population declines. These declines are associated with similar declines in fawn production. Definitive information concerning the causes for declining pronghorn numbers and fawn production is lacking. However, these declines may be related to habitat degradation. Conifer encroachment into sage brush habitat may be reducing habitat quality and/or quantity.
The 2019-20 winter was lighter than in 2018-19, so ungulate survival was generally robust in the Bridger, Gallatin and Madison ranges (deer and elk HDs 301, 309, 310, 311, 321, 360, 361 and 362; and pronghorn HDs 311 and 360). For the Bridger, Gallatin and Madison ranges, elk counts are within or above objective for all areas except HD 310, which continues to be below objective. Mule deer and white-tailed deer are trending at or above average in most areas. Pronghorn numbers are within long-term averages for HDs 311 and 360, but due to low survival through the winter of 2018-19, doe/fawn licenses have been reduced in both areas.
Winter conditions in the east Gallatin, Absaroka and east Crazy mountain ranges (deer and elk HDs 313, 314, 315, 317, and 393) did not result in substantial winter mortality. Elk numbers are generally at or above objective, and deer numbers remain within long-term averages. Antelope numbers were up in antelope HD 340 and down slightly in HD 339. Antelope numbers were down in HD 313, and the license quota was reduced in order to maintain a conservative harvest opportunity while continuing to allow the population to expand.
Following the 2019 hunting season, elk populations in the Tobacco Root (HDs 320 and 333) and Gravelly (HDs 322, 323, 324, 325, 326, 327 and 330) elk management units remain above management objective. Most elk and elk harvest in HD 333 will be distributed outside of National Forest lands. Holders of the 333-01 elk B-license should be aware that the license is valid only outside of National Forest lands. Hunters will need to obtain private landowner permission to access many of these elk.
White-tailed deer populations in the Ruby Valley increased from two years ago. These deer are found primarily on private land, so landowner permission will be required to get to them. White-tailed deer hunting throughout public lands and tributaries will be opportunistic and subject to weather.
Mule deer population surveys in the Tobacco Root (HD 320) and Blacktail (HD 325) mountains showed population growth relative to 2019, while the survey in the Sweetwater Hills (HD 326) showed a stable population. The number of mule deer observed by hunters in these areas is expected to remain relatively comparable to the past two years.
The pronghorn population on the west side of the Tobacco Root Mountains (HD 320) remained low following significant winter mortality during early 2019. Pronghorn hunting licenses remain reduced in response to the change. The majority of pronghorn in the hunting district will be found in the southern half of the district between Sheridan and Virginia City. Pronghorn surveys of HD 321 showed some decline relative to two years ago. However, the population remained above the long-term average.
Hunters may encounter some changes to how some Bureau of Land Management and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation motorized routes are signed around Dillon. Agencies are making efforts to sign roads that are not open for motorized travel as closed. This is part of an effort to improve public understanding of public lands travel routes. Before you drive out to this area, inquire with the local BLM office to get maps and current information for open and drivable roads.
Hunters who plan to hunt in the Gravelly, Centennial, Greenhorn, south Tobacco Root, Madison, Gallatin and Absaroka ranges should be exceptionally cautious of grizzly bear activity. For information on hunting safely in grizzly country, please visit igbconline.org/hunters/.
Destination: NORTH CENTRAL MONTANA
Hunters can generally expect to find average or slightly above average numbers of most big game species along with good hunting opportunities in north central Montana during the upcoming hunting season. Last winter’s mostly favorable weather conditions led to good survival rates among deer, elk and antelope, although populations in some areas are still recovering from severe winters in the past.
Near Great Falls, biologist Jake Doggett reports that elk are doing well in the Highwood Mountains and Devils Kitchen areas, where numbers remain above long-term averages. Overwinter calf survival was also good, resulting in good recruitment into the population. Elk numbers are slightly below average in the Little Belts (hunting district 413).
Mule deer numbers in the agricultural areas near Great Falls are generally doing well, while populations in the mountainous areas are still rebounding from lower numbers of the past few years. White-tailed deer numbers remain strong and should provide good opportunities for hunters.
Surveys suggest that antelope are recovering from the tough winters of 2017 and 2018 across the area. Numbers are still below long-term averages, but fawn production was good, especially in areas with more cropland.
Jay Kolbe, FWP Wildlife Biologist based in White Sulphur Springs reports that mule deer in his area are still recovering from significant declines seen about 10 years ago.
Mild weather during the 2019 big game season led to lower than average elk harvest in the area, which should result in a few more bulls for hunters to chase in the upcoming year.
Antelope fawn production has been good in the last few years and herds have either been steady or increasing around the Little Belts and east Big Belts.
Brent Lonner is FWP’s wildlife biologist for the southern Rocky Mountain Front, and his winter/spring 2020 surveys of the Sun River elk herd showed strong numbers of bulls, with a calculated brow-tined bull to cow ratio of approximately 25:100. Harvest and survey data portray overall Sun River elk numbers near the lower end of objective range (2,250 to 2,750 elk) along with continued low calf recruitment, so antlerless harvest opportunity has been reduced for this herd in the 2020 hunting season.
In other districts along the southern Rocky Mountain Front, elk numbers are at or above long-term averages. Hunting District 422 remains well above its population objective levels of 450 to 550 elk. Lonner’s recent winter/spring survey data portray just over 1,100 observed elk with fair calf recruitment into the population. Liberal harvest opportunity remains in this district to include early and late shoulder season hunting opportunity on both a general license and or elk B licenses.
The Birdtail Hills area (districts 421 and 423) remains above its population objective of 400 – 600 elk with just under 700 elk observed in surveys this past winter. As a result, early and late shoulder season hunting opportunities will also be available for this hunting season.
Mule deer numbers along the Southern Rocky Mountain Front, and overall hunting opportunity remains the same as in recent years. Buck to doe ratios are considered good at 24 bucks per 100 does. Fawns born in 2019 were aided in their overwinter survival by mild weather, and subsequent 2020 spring recruitment was near average at 35 fawns per 100 adults. White-tailed deer numbers remain strong in the area, especially along river corridors and in agricultural grounds, with spring 2020 observed numbers in the lower Sun and Teton rivers at 47 percent and 23 percent above long-term averages.
Lonner reports continued improvement of overall antelope numbers for districts 440 and 444, although some areas are doing better than others. Within hunting district 444, strong buck numbers and fair to good fawn production led to an increase in either-sex licenses for the first time in several years.
Along the northern Rocky Mountain Front, biologist Ryan Rauscher reports that elk numbers are generally above their long-term average, with bull to cow ratios at or near average. In the Sweetgrass Hills, elk numbers remain well over objective, giving hunters opportunity to harvest antlerless elk.
Although fawn numbers appear to be down slightly, mule deer populations remain above average overall. White-tailed deer numbers are increasing across much of Rauscher’s area, although the lower Marias and Teton still have localized pockets of lower numbers due to previous outbreaks of EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and habitat changes. In the western portions of his districts, Rauscher reports that white-tailed deer numbers are robust and should provide good harvest opportunities for both bucks and antlerless deer.
Antelope population numbers in the Golden Triangle are mixed. Near the Sweetgrass Hills, antelope are well under long term averages, resulting in no increase in license numbers, but sufficient to provide good hunting opportunities for those fortunate enough to draw a license, especially in the southern half of district 401 on private land where permission to hunt from the landowner is required. In the heart of the Golden Triangle district of HD 404, antelope numbers have seen a steady increase from lows in 2017, and license numbers have been increased to reflect that rise.
Destination: SOUTH CENTRAL MONTANA
Elk populations throughout south central Montana remain robust. The number of elk accessible by hunters on national forest and other public lands is small, however. The biggest concentration of elk is on private land where access and associated harvest opportunities are limited.
Mule deer numbers in hunting districts 502, 510, 520 and 575 – mostly in Carbon and southern Stillwater counties – are at record lows. Seasons have been liberalized in some areas along the Wyoming border since 2017 in response to chronic wasting disease being discovered in deer for the first time in Montana.
Based on limited ground observations and last fall’s harvest data, it appears that mule deer numbers remain slightly below average in the Boulder River area and north of the Yellowstone River in hunting districts 570 and 580.
In the Musselshell River and Flatwillow Creek corridors, mule deer numbers are similar to last year and the number of fawns seems good.
White-tailed deer numbers east of the Crazy Mountains and in the Musselshell River and Flatwillow Creek are above the long-term average. In the Boulder River area and north of the Yellowstone River numbers are near average. Along the Beartooth front, white-tailed deer numbers are quite low with some improvement as one moves north. Generally, opportunities in south central Montana will be similar to last year.
Antelope numbers measured by biologists this summer are generally below average – but stable and similar to last year – throughout south central Montana. The exception is hunting district 570 between Columbus and Harlowton, where antelope numbers remain slightly above average.
Destination: NORTHEAST MONTANA
Mule deer populations are high across the region but vary depending on the hunting district. Overall, post-season surveys showed the region-wide population at 79 percent above average. Winter mortality was likely minimal across the region during the 2019-2020 winter based on observations and reports. Due to increasing quota numbers, there may be surplus tags still available in some districts. Please look at the fwp.mt.gov website for the most up-to-date information on surplus licenses.
White-tailed deer densities continue to remain stable across the region. The 2020 survey showed white-tailed deer density averages of 10.6 deer-per-square mile across the trend areas, which is right at the long-term average of 10.7 deer-per-square mile. The surveys did see a decrease from the 2019 survey of 9 percent. Late summer did bring epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) to parts of the region, and this may impact populations in some areas.
A single-region antlerless whitetail B-license will again be available for over the counter purchase, with a limit of one per hunter. Additionally, some whitetail B licenses may be available in surplus. Please look at the fwp.mt.gov website for the most up-to-date information on surplus licenses.
Elk surveys in the Missouri River Breaks in 2020 found similar number of elk compared to the 2018 survey, which is around 15 percent below the long-term average. Elk numbers in the Bears Paw area were above the 15-year average based on the 2018 aerial survey.
In general, antelope populations have been slowly increasing across the region. While some survey areas have observed increased numbers and are at or above their long-term averages, there are still a few areas where antelope are still below their long-term average. Antelope licenses are distributed through the drawing system. Major reductions in licenses were seen following the winter of 2010-11, however some increase in licenses have been seen since that time. Those who have drawn licenses should have a good opportunity to harvest an antelope. Remember to ask first for permission to hunt on private land.
Destination: SOUTHEAST MONTANA
Southeast Montana experienced another summer with good rainfall, but conditions are rapidly drying out and fire restrictions are being implemented. The past couple of summers the region has received good rainfall followed by mild winters, creating favorable conditions for wildlife.
Rifle deer hunters should expect to spend time glassing this season, since high vegetation offers better concealment.
Aerial surveys of deer populations in southeast Montana indicate that both mule deer and white-tailed deer remain above long-term average numbers.
“Abundant precipitation last year made for good forage conditions and deer going into winter in good body condition,” said Wildlife Biologist Melissa Foster. “The winter was mild for southeast Montana, so deer had enough 'gas in the tank' to make it through to spring green-up.”
FWP received no reports of widespread winterkills of deer.
“Mule deer are looking good,” Foster said, “Numbers are about 15 percent above last year and 33 percent above long-term average.”
Foster determines long-term average by tracing survey data back to the 1996-97 season and harvest figures back to 1976.
Surveys show mule deer population density in southeast Montana has been increasing since about 2012, when deer numbers began to rebound from a crash following back-to-back bitter winters. In 2016, deer reached the highest density recorded in the past three decades.
The recruitment rate for mule deer fawns is also solid, climbing steadily since 2010.
“This spring we saw a recruitment of 6