By Brian Baxter
To say that there were many challenges to successfully harvesting game in our area this season would be an understatement. To start with, Mother Nature seemed content to unleash a warming trend in weather patterns. This resulted in a major lack of snow, which seriously hampered efforts of one of the most important skills to hunters, animal tracking. Sure, good trackers can find a more rounded leading edge bull elk track in soft soils, and may even spot dew claws in mud. Some can pick up a young doe deer imprint in frosty moss, but most hunters would surely agree that snow is a great help in tracking wild game, as well as predators such as wolves and cougars.
Generally speaking, the heavier the snow accumulation in the high country, the more of a push game species must make down and into winter range. Therefore, on a normal year, elk and deer come down from areas like the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness and filter into winter ranges such as the south and west facing slopes of Swede – McMillian and the Fisher River Drainage. This was not a normal year.
In speaking with Tonya Chilton – Radandt, the Libby / Troy area Wildlife Biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, she said “I’d agree that the warmer temperatures likely had a major impact on harvest numbers this year. In addition, the change to the North Fisher Portion mule deer permit area (HD-103-50) limited hunter numbers coming through the Canoe Gulch check station this year which led to a significant reduction in hunter effort, as we anticipated.” Another factor that reduced this hunter’s effort, was the freezing rain storms that rolled in, especially the Thanksgiving Day icing event. This weather storm coated the Forest Service access and old logging roads with sheets of ice from one to five inches thick in many areas. So, if you were seeking to hunt the snow line as many hunters do, one would just start getting near that line and then slide like a hockey player on a few inches of snow that had an underlying ice bed. On a forty percent slope road, this is suicidal. Unless your driving a tank.
Now, as a younger man this sliding effect going up a hill and even worse going downhill, would send a mild rush of human chemical hormonal brain messages that said slow down and be cool. But more recently, as an older gentleman, that same telegraphed response screams what the heck is wrong with you, you crazy son of a gun? The fight or flight syndrome chooses flight in no uncertain terms. It is no longer a mild rush, but a chemical torrent that screams through my entire being and quickly convinces me that if I get out of this one, I am surely not returning to this dilemma.
Here is a brief statistical analysis of the 2018 season numbers as compared to the 2017 figures for Canoe Gulch check station. Total hunter numbers were at 85% of last season. White tailed deer take was at 53%, and white tail bucks at 52% of last years harvest. Mule deer ranged at about 72% of last years kill. Elk numbers actually were very good at the same ratio as last year. The total percentage of hunters with game this year was at 71 % of last seasons successful hunter ratio. Keep in mind that these are estimates, as MTFWP will be following up with phone interviews to get more precise numbers.
Our very professional and always informative local biologist Tonya was very happy with the elk numbers. She also asked The Montanian to mention for both this season and next that hunters are reminded to please do not dump their deer and elk carcass in the woods. Our biologists have concerns about the spread of CWD, or chronic wasting disease, and the likely increase in predators that might be attracted to these dumping grounds. Instead, MTFWP encourages hunters to use their local landfills to appropriately dispose of any harvested animals carcass.
This hunting season was a tough one, no doubt. Consider yourself lucky if you harvested game this year. It was tricky for many reasons, but the outdoorsy folks of Northwest Montana hunt for a variety of reasons. Some hunt for a beautiful set of antlers, some for the nutritious, clean meat, and many for both. The Kootenai Tribe of Native Americans, sometimes called the deer robe people, hunted for sustenance, and no part of any kill was wasted. Many folks hunt as a family activity, and teach their children by taking them on youth hunts. Others hunt for outdoor adventure, exercise, tuning in with nature, and maintaining a spiritual connection.
And without any doubt in this hunters mind, friendships grow and become solidified on the hunt. This season, I was fortunate to have the company of an exceptional young lady. Mary is relatively new to the area and came along as an observer to learn the country, and to familiarize with local hunting methods. We experienced some beautiful days together, taking in the scenes from mountaintops of cloud banked valleys with the awesome Cabinet Mountains in the background.
On Thanksgiving Day, she went to dinner with her young friends, and the old hunter did his traditional solo hunt. Silently creeping up to the edge of an opening, a nice buck was spotted at 200 yards, but did not present an opportunity for a good lethal shot, and vaporized into the timber. Disheartened, but not discouraged, another loop was made through the timber to a posting spot with a rest for the rifle. Magically, it seemed he now appeared on the left flank at 140 yards. He seemed to resemble the buck that vanished, but in the morning mist his antlers donned an orange like glow. As he walked, the .300 Winchester was raised to lead the target for a lethal neck shot. Upon walking up to him, it became evident he was a younger meat buck with a 4 X 5 rack. This old hunter took off his wool cap, and with admittedly tear welled eyes of both joy and sorrow, gave thanks on this day to and for this deer, for the companionship of my new friend, and for the privilege of living and hunting in Northwest Montana.
Photo of hunter tracking Bull Elk across logging road. Photo by Mary Powers.