Ask any Montana hunter, and they’ll have a different response on the state of our mule deer herds and mule deer hunting.
There’s certainly no shortage of complaints, nor ideas on what to do about it.
Along those lines, FWP is looking for members of a to-be-formed mule deer citizens advisory council. The goal of the group is to identify expectations for a new mule deer plan and reach consensus among members on what solutions could look like to address declining mule deer herds and growing concerns from hunters, landowners and outfitters on what this means for their opportunities and livelihoods.
So how big of an issue are we talking about here?
Mule deer herds - at least in some parts of the state - are struggling; that’s an objective reality. But where the real disagreement starts is around what to do about it, and what that might mean for Montana hunters.
We’ve heard from hunters, both residents and non, that the mule deer hunting opportunities they covet are becoming harder to find in Montana.
During meetings and on online forums, all manner of ideas have been shared. These range from the DIY hunter with weeks of vacation to burn who wants to hunt hard to find a 180-inch deer, and not see any other hunters in the process, to the weekend warrior who is satisfied with anything bigger than a fork-and-horn. And then there’s the hunter who is willing to shoot anything legal, maybe even prefers shooting a doe, but simply wants venison in the freezer each year.
Others yet have deep-seated deer camp traditions with friends and family, both residents and non, and they don’t want to give that up. Youth and novice hunters may have different expectations and desires than sportsmen and women who have dozens of deer mounts on their walls. Out-of-state outfitted clients may have different definitions of success too.
Rural communities have said that they rely on the dollars provided by resident and non-resident mule deer hunters. Though, many Montana sportsmen and women have complained about too many hunters. So it largely depends on who you ask.
And, being honest, all have legitimate arguments on behalf of our shared hunting heritage.
Of course, most want this opportunity each and every year. According to Montana FWP’s 2023 resident hunter survey, 64.5% said hunting mule deer in the same place each year is important or very important, 14.5% answered unimportant or very unimportant, and 21% appeared neutral. We can certainly understand this desire, but is it reasonable, especially for hunters who want a mature buck? It might not be.
Yet when asked directly what Montana hunters would prefer - either hunting mule deer bucks every year with lower chances of finding a mature deer vs being able to hunt once every few years with a higher probability of finding a giant - 61.4% favored the ability to hunt each year, while 38.6% preferred the latter scenario. These responses were unchanged when asked about the specific region they hunt versus statewide, and seems to signal that 6/10 Montana hunters prefer quantity of opportunity versus trophy quality of opportunity.
Perhaps part of the reason we don’t see more support for permitted units is the concern that by limiting entry in more areas, this will only shift pressure into other over-the-counter areas. FWP asked about this tradeoff too, and responses were inconclusive.
So what are some of the other ideas floating around? Some argue that opportunity needs to be reduced in some way - so either shorter seasons, more limited entry permits, or perhaps changes to methods of take. Others think antler point restrictions are the way to go, while some point to data suggesting that antler point restrictions don’t work as intended. We’ve heard as recently as the December Commission meeting that the solution is to just stop killing does, at least on public lands in Regions 6 & 7, arguing this will likely lower hunting pressure while simply keeping and putting more deer on the landscape, and some of them will even get big. Maybe.
The most common - and perhaps controversial - suggestion we hear, however, is to stop or scale back the hunting of mule deer bucks in the rut; the thinking being that this will allow deer a better chance of survival by preventing harvests when they’re most vulnerable.
Yet, again, when asked directly about this - hunting mule deer bucks in the rut - 63.8% of surveyed hunters supported or strongly supported this; 16.2% opposed or strongly opposed, while 20% appeared neutral. So it appears nearly ⅔ of Montana hunters actually want to keep hunting bucks in the rut, even though we often hear the opposite suggestion.
While these responses may be surprising in some circles, they are consistent with other findings in the survey.
FWP asked why hunters chase mule deer, and 76.4% said ‘to get venison for eating’ is important or very important, whereas fewer, 59.2%, said ‘to harvest a trophy buck’ is important or very important. The most cited reason was ‘to enjoy nature and time outdoors,’ which 92.7% of hunters surveyed said was important or very important. Again, all valid reasons.
So what’s the best path forward?
That’s what this mule deer citizens advisory council intends to find out.
As long as fair chase, equitable opportunity remains, Montana BHA will continue to focus on the larger, underlying issues that we can agree on, but maybe don’t give enough attention to when we talk about mule deer management: the need to protect mule deer habitat and migration corridors, to proactively address growing concerns with disease, specifically CWD and EHD, and to continue to seek improvements to public access to both public and private lands. Improving these issues, collectively, will help ensure healthy herds and our hunting heritage, something all mule deer hunters will benefit from, and probably even agree on.
The rest of these decisions are best decided by biologists, with heavy input from you. We encourage you to apply to the mule deer citizens advisory council. Learn more here.
Don’t forget! Some of Montana’s limited-entry areas offer high trophy potential, and Montana BHA is offering a chance to hunt anywhere in the state while contributing to an account specifically for the betterment of mule deer. It’s a win-win! Enter here.