The northern Rocky Mountains boast such abundance of wild public lands that some people choose to live here just because of that. It's a big draw. It's the outdoor lifestyle. Deer hunting is a big part of that life.
Deer hunters in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have a lot to chose from, with millions of acres in national forests, BLM and national monument lands. Let's take closer look at what hunters could expect this fall.
The deer population in Montana is stable to increasing, depending on where hunters are at in this big state full of some of the most varied public lands in the West.
Mule deer predominate in much of the state, with whitetail concentrations high in the northwest.
Deer herds recovered well from the lows in 2014, said John Vore, biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"Our mule deer population is doing real well," he noted. "They recovered from the lows in 2014. They are going gangbusters, particularly in region 7 in eastern Montana."
The northwestern part of Montana is an exception to the trend upward. Whitetails there went through a tough winter there last year.
"Northwest Montana did take a bit of a hit last winter," said Vore. "They got an awful lot of snow up there. Our staff has expressed some concern about the area. The rest of the state is doing great."
Montana sportsmen study the regulations carefully because the regs are extensive and varied. "We fine-tune the management not only to the resource and habitat, but also for what sportsmen want," explained Vore.
With lots of deer, some areas are managed for older more mature bucks and other areas more for venison in the freezer.
"With lots of different opportunity, then the cost of that is lots of regulations," noted Vore.
This allows the wildlife department to set aside a few areas that allow bucks to grow older before they are harvested. It also allows increased harvest of does and younger animals if there is too much feeding on agricultural crops. Some areas will then have a high harvest and high hunter success rate.
"Most hunters in the state are just looking for the opporunity to harvest a buck," said Vore. "And it doesn't have to be a big buck."
One of the better areas this year will be the southeast region 7, which along with the rest of eastern Montana, has very good deer numbers going into the fall.
"Interestingly, in our southeastern portion of the state in region 7 we have a liberal opportunity for hunters there," said Vore. "There are lots of buck licenses. With the kind of liberal management we have been doing we have a lot of hunters out there who utilize that."
One new limiting factor on Montana deer herds are elk. Elk and deer compete for some foods and the elk population has increased threefold and fourfold in some areas over the past 30 years, said Vore.
For deer, the best place to begin is the Montana Hunt Planner on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website. It is detailed, including information on some public lands to avoid because they are surrounded by private land and are too difficult to get to. Montana is the top Western state in number of acres of public land that are unreachable because of land patterns that isolate tracts, with nearly 1.96 million acres falling into this category.
But, there is much more public land that can be gained access to with no problems. The state enjoys vast acreages of BLM land and national forests. Teddy Roosevelt was very active in creating lots of national forests that provide good deer hunting and all kinds of outdoor recreation here. More recently, new national monuments in the West also have good public deer hunting. One of the best is Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument along the Missouri River.
For both national monuments and forests, detailed maps show roads and where the boundaries between public and private land are. The national forests include Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Bitterroot, Custer, Flathead, Gallatin, Helena, Kaniksu, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, and Lolo. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department wildlife management areas are intensely managed for wildlife habitat. They are scattered around the state.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior
(Via North American Whitetail)
The state's deer herds came out of last winter better in the east than in the western part of Wyoming. "They are doing pretty good in the eastern part of the state," reported Doug Brimeyer, deputy wildlife chief of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "We had serious winter conditions in the west along the state line. We had mortality in the west."
Some of the worst of it extended from Jackson south into the very southwestern part of Wyoming. That area can have long and severe winters with residents holing up amidst the drifts in the dead of winter. Suffice to say that Jackson had very good downhill skiing last year.
The precipitation level there was the highest ever recorded in 122 years, which meant deep snow.
Brimeyer said this has resulted in more conservative deer seasons in that part of Wyoming as the WGFD attempts to rebuild the herd.
"We had a number of deer that were marked with radio collars," said Brimeyer, "and we lost from 30 percent, up to 80 to 90 percent of the fawns."
Fawns are classified as the deer born the spring prior, so age-wise they were heading toward yearling status. Young animals in the deer population suffer higher mortality because they are leaner with less fat and are still growing.
The Sublette hunting unit was especially hard hit by the deep snows.
"In the rest of the state the mule deer are good," noted Brimeyer. "Statewide, we are similar to last year. We are seeing some increase in the northeast part of the state. So, two-thirds of the state is good. The western third has fewer deer."
The general area of deer winter-kill starts approximately at Pinedale.
Even in the western part of Wyoming, hunters may not notice the drop so much this year. Many of the older animals survived and are there this hunting season. But as last year's fawn class moves up into the main segment of the population, the number of huntable animals will be down in future years.
"The West is mostly mule deer, and most of our hunting seasons are designed to put pressure on any whitetails that are trying to colonize or expand," said Brimeyer. "Mule deer are more iconic of the West. So we are trying to maintain that. The whitetails mostly follow the riparian areas and river corridors. Mule deer migrate more than whitetail deer do. The whitetails stay in in the riparian areas. Mule deer will migrate 150 miles. It is behavioral, so they can adapt to the more mountainous severe weather."
About half of Wyoming is public land and almost all of it is open to deer hunting. It's a situation that fellow hunters in the East can only dream of, unless they come to Wyoming for a hunt.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has about 413,000 acres that it manages for wildlife. Some of that is owned by the WGFD, and some of it is leased from private landowners. Like other states, the focus on these areas is wildlife, so much of it has some of the best deer habitat in Wyoming. But that total number of acres is dwarfed by the national forest and BLM land in Wyoming.
The national forests have lots of deer hunting and more public land than a sportsman can traverse in a lifetime. Individual national forest maps are needed to explore these areas, including Bighorn, Bridger-Teton, Black Hills, Caribou-Targhee, Shoshone, Wasatch, Medicine Bow-Routt, and Ashley.
Some of the public lands in Idaho took a big hit last winter that killed lots of deer born the spring of 2016. So, deer populations will be down in some areas.
"How that played out across the state is that we did have our lowest survival weight," said Craig White, with the Idaho Game and Fish Department. "Fawn survival was down. There are areas where we lost almost all of the fawns."
The fall hunt will, however, will be better than the fawn survival numbers would indicate. The carryover of older deer was good, and the past three years had some of the highest deer numbers and deer harvest on record.
"The last three seasons we had our highest whitetail harvest," noted White. "Mule deer the last three years was our highest. The last few years were the 'good old days' for most people, those (hunters) 45 and under. We lost the yearlings but we have a healthy population. Rather than growing, it is stable. With a couple mild winters, we will be growing again. We are already at a higher level than we were five years ago. But it depends on the weather."
Areas expected to have lower numbers of young deer are in southeastern Idaho and west of Boise.
"Those are areas we monitor and we lost fawns, there is no sugar coating it," said White.
Across the state the fawn mortality rate averaged out at 59 percent.
"As far as what is out there on the hillside, there will be areas this year where people won't see yearlings," said White, "and typically that makes up 20 to 25 percent of harvest ... some areas 30 percent. Harvest will be down. Fawns available in the fall are not there."
But overall, many areas will still have great hunting. The doe survival rate was 93 percent, which remains good. White expects some Controlled Hunt units managed for mature deer to be good, especially unit 43 in the South Hills, and units 30 and 39.
Whitetails in north Idaho also had an average winter, so there will be good numbers this fall.
Rick Ward, the southwest regional wildlife manager, said doe survival was 90 percent in the southwest, but also with poor fawn survival. So, numbers of mature animals will remain good, but younger smaller deer numbers are down.
"On general hunts, the majority of bucks harvested are yearlings," noted Ward. "So there will be fewer yearlings for harvesting. For older aged bucks in draw controlled hunts, there won't be much change."
To zero in on public hunting, the Idaho Fish and Game Hunt Planner Interactive Map Center is located on the department website.
It shows public lands. National forests also have good individual maps with the the small logging roads and trails that aren't on most other maps. The national forest maps are located at Forest Service offices and also online.
The private land leased by Idaho Fish and Game for hunting in the Access Yes program totals 310,225 acres. The Idaho Fish and Game site also has topographic maps showing hunting unit boundaries as well as 32 Wildlife Management Areas across the state. Again, the national forests and BLM lands with millions of acres of wild lands open to deer hunting are the centerpiece. National forests are the Bitterroot, Boise, Caribou-Targhee, Clearwater, Idaho Panhandle, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Payette, Salmon-Challis, Sawtooth, Wallowa — Whitman and Wasatch-Cache.
Now that we've taken a look at some of the good hunting opportunities available this season in the high country, it's time for you to hit one of these destinations or another near you.