Big Game Opener – Season opens with relatively low success rates, but pleasant weather

Bozeman area wildlife biologist Julie Cunningham (right) talk with local hunters Sunday at a check station near Cameron. The Montana FWP uses data collected from talking with hunters to keep statistics on wildlife populations. Photo by Ben Coulter

As hunters take to the hills for opening weekend of general big game season, employees and volunteers with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are busy manning roadside check stations to keep track of the state’s abundant big game populations.

Hunters are required to stop at designated check stations where wildlife biologists, lab technicians and volunteers wait to gather information about where they hunted and what kind of game they did or didn’t see.

FWP wildlife biologist Julie Cunningham of Bozeman greeted hunters with a smile as the autumn sun warmed the Cameron check station Sunday afternoon. While she admits most hunters would prefer to see cooler weather, the value of the information she collects is undeniable.

12-year-old Alysa Fugal poses with her first bull elk, a five-pointer shot opening morning of general big game season. The bull was the first one of the season checked through the Cameron game check station. Submitted photo

“This is a little sub sample that helps us get a good picture of what the season’s like while we’re in it,” she said.

Cunningham keeps track of the number of hunters passing through and the number of days they have hunted, as well as age, species and sex of the animals they harvest.

This year Montana FWP is taking samples from around the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the southern border of Montana to look for signs of chronic wasting disease.

“It’s all voluntary but it all helps us in our sampling to detect if this disease is encroaching upon our borders,” Cunningham said.

FWP technician Stefanie Olind explained why it’s important for hunters to participate in surveys like these.

“We’ve never had a case in our wild population of chronic wasting disease, but it is in the other states around us so we want to make sure and keep an eye on it and see if we can detect it before there is a problem, and if there is a problem hopefully we can manage it,” she said, adding, “It’s important to keep an eye on our wildlife population health.”

At the Cameron checkpoint, 8.2 percent of the 466 hunters who stopped harvested game on opening weekend. This is a bit higher than the success rate for 2010’s opening weekend, when 7.5 percent of hunters had game.

Over on the other side of the mountains, north of Dillon, the Divide game check station had 350 hunters come through with about 9.5 percent having successful hunts. This success rate is down a bit from last year when more than 12 percent of hunters that came through were successful.

First year hunter Tony Nicholls from Silver Star bagged this nice 4 x 5 mule deer buck the first day of hunting season. Tony has the secrets of hunting season down. When asked where he shot it, he just smiled and said “In a good secret place!” Submitted photo

“I haven’t had any big hot spots or big concentrations, but I guess I would say folks just have to get out and among them. They seem to be pretty dispersed,” Cunningham said.

“We want to be learning from the hunters, so I always enjoy getting to stop and visit with everyone that comes through and seeing what they see and hearing those stories helps me have a bigger picture of what’s going on on the landscape also.”

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