Landers: Montana Whitetail Numbers Down

Rut Reporter Rich Landers, a native Montanan and life-long hunter, is the outdoors editor for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. He has written several books about the western outdoors and has hunted whitetails all his life. States covered: WA, OR, ID, MT, WY, CO.
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Sept. 6:** Hunting forecast news is sobering in Eastern Montana, where whitetails are suffering the double whammy of two difficult winters followed by this summer's onset of disease. Deer numbers have declined in many areas--and the numbers continue to plummet going into this fall's seasons.

How bad is it? "I will not be in the field this year," said Scott Sundheim of Sioux Pass Outfitters based in Fairview, Mont. "We had a very hard winter kill and are now seeing 'blue tongue' deaths in the whitetail. I did not book any hunters because of our low numbers."

He photographed his hunting partner, Toni Martini, with the dead in-velvet buck shown above two weeks ago during a scouting boat ride on the Missouri River.

Sundheim is taking the high road to avoid disappointing his customers and to give whitetails in a chance to recover in his hunting spots. Certainly there will be nice bucks taken throughout the state and some spots have virtually escaped the problems. But the impacts are widespread.

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FEWER TAGS:** More than 7,000 tags for deer and antelope have been pulled in the state's central Region 4 to try to ease pressure on the struggling herds.

Pronghorns suffered the most last winter as deep snow prevented the animals from finding food. In the northeast, the overall antelope population dropped 70 percent compared with last year, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists estimate.

Whitetails faired better through the winter because, unlike pronghorns, they'll gnaw at haystacks to get through tough times.

But this summer, an outbreak of a biting midge-borne disease appears to have been decimating whitetails in some eastern Montana river drainages.

The outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease--often called blue Tongue--hasn't been confirmed in all of the deer-depressed areas, but all signs point that way, according to biologists.

The disease mainly affects white-tailed deer that live along waterways.

Not knowing how much the outbreak would spread, wildlife officials in northeastern Montana further decreased the number of doe licenses it would offer to 2,000, down from 5,000 last year.