Manning Rushton

When it comes to hunter crowding and the state of mule deer, non-resident hunting pressure and harvests aren’t the only culprits, but mounting evidence shows they’re a big one.

According to an FWP Interoffice Memorandum dated 5/6/2024, the “total Region 6 mule deer harvest in 2023 was estimated at 9,986, 28% above the 26-year average” and - for the first time ever - non-residents harvested more antlered mule deer than Montana residents in Region 6.

The memo added that “antlerless harvest in 2023 was 35% above the 26-year average, with resident hunters making up 54% of the antlerless mule deer harvest.” So a pile of does are being killed by hunters too, and nearly half of them (46%) by non-residents.

A Commission-led change due to declining mule deer trajectories now prohibits the hunting of antlerless mule deer on public lands in Regions 6 and 7. This will likely decrease antlerless harvests in 2024, but the impacts this will have on the resident vs. non-resident harvest ratio and hunting pressure remains to be seen, and many are concerned that the change will actually increase the harvest of mule deer bucks, further reducing the buck-to-doe ratio.

When other solutions for these issues - like Sen. Flowers’ (D-Bozeman) SB 525 which sought to require that the Commission place meaningful caps on all non-resident hunting licenses - have been brought forward, outfitters, legislators, and even members of Montana’s DIY hunting community argued that the issue isn’t necessarily about the number of hunters or the number of licenses, but rather about hunter effort and the number of days hunters are spending afield.

But the Region 6 memo seems to put those perceptions to rest.

"Region 6 has seen a fairly constant number of resident hunters over the last decade but more notable is the large increase in non-resident hunters during the same time period (Table 1, Figure 6). Resident hunters have remained mostly stable from 2013 to 2023, while non-resident hunter numbers have almost doubled, with 96% more hunters in 2023 compared to 2013.”

“Similar patterns can be observed in hunter days across the region,” the memo continues. “The number of hunter days in 2023 was 33% higher than what was estimated in 2013 but largely correlates to the increase in hunters across the region. The number of days per hunter has remained fairly stable over the reported period for both resident and non-resident hunters."

In other words, the increase in non-resident hunters and the uptick of licenses available appear to be major factors in the increase in harvests and decrease in mule deer populations. Drought is also a significant contributor, but is largely out of our control.

Is it time to reconsider a bill like Sen. Flowers’ SB 525? Do we need to split up non-resident general deer and elk tags into the seven regions with each having their own cap determined by opportunity, public access, herd population and health? (Wyoming implemented something similar this year for their non-resident general elk tags).

Should the legislature and Governor Gianforte stop with the outfitter, landowner and non-resident giveaways and guarantees? For years, we’ve heard that ideas like these are nothing more than solutions looking for a problem, but it seems that if there’s one thing Montanans can agree on, it’s that we certainly have a problem.

So what are we going to do about it? Who will now be asked to sacrifice their hunting opportunities?

Those remain the questions, and if Montanans don’t start paying attention and voting for candidates who will protect the resource and stick up for resident hunters, we may not like the answers.

Manning Rushton is a volunteer board member for the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He lives, works, hunts and fishes near Malta, MT.