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Mule Deer Management At Work Behind The Scenes

Hunters who are used to buying surplus mule deer B licenses right before the general season might have been disappointed this year. However, this reduction in some B licenses in eastern Montana is important to mule deer management.

When mule deer numbers are down in large regions of the state, or even in specific hunting districts, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks adjusts the number of B licenses in response. The methodology is called adaptive harvest management, and it’s the foundation of mule deer management in Montana.

“When we see localized areas of mule deer numbers trending down, like we are now, we drop the number of licenses we sell,” said Drew Henry, FWP Region 6 supervisor. “That’s what adaptive management is. We monitor numbers closely and have flexibility within the licensing system to respond.”

Although hunters will still see great mule deer opportunities in many parts of eastern Montana, particularly in parts of northeast Montana where mule deer numbers are generally above the longterm average, hunters will see some areas where numbers are lower than in years past. This is largely due to drought, as well as some areas of localized mortality from an epizootic hemorrhagic disease outbreak last year. Due to population decreases in hunting districts 620, 630, 670 and 690 compared to the last few years, B-license quotas were reduced prior to the June 1 drawing.

Mule deer counts in southeast Montana, for example, were 36 percent below 2021 numbers and 47 percent below the long-term average. This is the area of the state, including south of Miles City, where habitat was hit hardest by drought and fawn recruitment was low as a result.

In response, FWP issued just 3,000 mule deer B licenses this year for Region 7 as compared to 5,500 tags issued last year and 11,000 in 2020. Historically, these licenses had been selling out by the third week of the season, but this year there were very few left over after the draw, and they were sold out soon after surpluses licenses were offered. “We know a lot of hunters have been able to pick up a mule deer B license right before the season starts, but that wasn’t the case this year,” said FWP Region 7 supervisor Brad Schmitz. “We knew numbers were trending down and we responded by issuing fewer B licenses. If we get some moisture and a mild winter, we’re confident numbers will bounce right back, like they have in the past.”

This year, hunters may have been confused by the FWP Deer/Elk/Antelope Hunting Regulations Booklet, which routinely display the previous year’s quota. For example, the B license quota for Region 7 in the regulations was 5,500, which was the quota for 2021. This year FWP issued just 3,000. The lag in accurate information is largely due to the early printing of the regulations, which happens before biologists have a chance to fly spring surveys and evaluate the prior year’s harvest information.

FWP has been managing mule deer across the state for decades through Adaptive Harvest Management, which accounts for trends in population size, fawn recruitment, natural mortality of fawns and adults, hunter harvest rates and age structure. FWP biologists monitor these as populations fluctuate over time in response to weather patterns, disease and other stressors. FWP then adjusts hunting regulations for specific areas of the state based on the population data in order to maintain viable populations for current and future hunters and the public to enjoy.

“Mule deer populations in Montana, like other species, are cyclical depending on habitat condition, disease and other factors,” said FWP Region 7 wildlife manager Brett Dorak. “A few years ago, we had some mild winters and wet springs and saw a healthy increase in mule deer numbers. With recent outbreaks of EHD and drought conditions, that changed. We’ve adjusted the B license quotas accordingly, and will look to make more adjustments next year based on our monitoring data.”

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