Where are the white-tails?

The continued decline in deer harvests in 2009 noted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) could trigger a series of adjustments to local hunting regulations in 2010.

Wildlife Manager Michael Thompson of Missoula says the FWP Commission will review a proposal Dec. 10 to eliminate an either-sex white-tailed deer hunt that occurs the first eight days of each season. The change is currently being discussed in regards to the Blackfoot River watershed.

"It's something that a lot of people take advantage of, and it's our primary source of antlerless harvest at this point in time," Thompson says.

In 2006, FWP's hunter check station in Bonner recorded 422 antlered white-tails harvested. Final numbers for 2009 from the Bonner station reveal a dramatic drop to only 215. The downward trend prompted FWP to eliminate over-the-counter B licenses for antlerless white-tail last season.

If the trend continues unchecked, deer populations could dip lower than levels recorded by FWP in the last two decades, Thompson says. Numbers that drastic hint at a problem outside the level of hunting allowed in the state.

"It looks like, from our data, that there's an environmental driver to what we're seeing," Thompson says. "Whether it's increased predation, weather events that set up greater predation success, we don't really know."

FWP biologist Jay Kolbe says the agency will launch a statewide study soon to determine whether the problem is one of productivity or of survivorship among young deer. Whatever is impacting the white-tailed deer population is likely having similar effects on mule deer, he says.

"I'd couch it less in terms of serious as significant," Kolbe says.

FWP is considering changing more than just the either-sex hunt in 2010. The agency has already increased the number of mountain lion hunting permits available this season in response to potential over-predation, and Thompson says the commission will review a proposal this month to extend the black bear hunt in the Blackfoot by two weeks.

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