Montana manages the majority of the deer units for hunter opportunity. Montana’s general deer tags provide a great opportunity for hunters to harvest a nice mule deer or whitetail buck. Montana’s long season dates have always been a hit with hunters as you typically have nearly three months to fill your tags if you hunt all weapons. The archery season runs September 2-October 15, most rifle seasons run October 21-November 26, and the muzzleloader season runs December 9-17. The rifle season dates allow hunters to hunt the rut. The downside of hunting the rut is that most of the mature bucks are harvested every season while they are more vulnerable as they are out chasing does. This can make finding a 170" mule deer buck difficult to do on public land. The eastern side of the state provides the best general mule deer hunting. There is a lot of private land, but there is plenty of Block Management and public land for anyone to have a good hunt.
There are a handful of good limited-entry units, and most of them give a hunter a good hunt for an average buck. The Bitterroot Valley has long been known as the best place to take a trophy buck, and it is no secret as the draw odds have been horrible for units 261, 262, and 270. Units 261 and 270 have plenty of public land and are quality units. In 2022, all of the non-resident deer permits drawn in units 261-50 and 270-50 were drawn by non-resident landowners. In Montana, 15% of all permits for elk and deer can go to landowners. The landowner draw takes place before the regular draw. Any special permit that a non-resident landowner draws will count against the 10% non-resident quota for that unit. Over the last four years, all non-resident permits were drawn by non-resident landowners in unit 261, and 8 out of 13 tags for unit 270 were drawn by nonresident landowners. Unit 262 is still producing a couple really big bucks a year, but if you don’t want to hunt on private land around houses, don’t apply for this unit. This is not going to be a fun hunt for a self-guided nonresident as access is typically granted to local hunters who spend the spring and summer months knocking on doors to secure areas to hunt. Access is getting harder to come by as many landowners in the area have grown tired of being asked for permission to hunt their land. Finding a top end buck in unit 262 is getting more difficult because of the higher permit allocations over the past few years.
The 2022 mule deer population estimate is the lowest since 2014. Unfortunately, Montana is still issuing either-sex general tags and extra doe tags. The units in Eastern Montana have taken the biggest population hit, especially on public land. Hunters are having to work a lot harder to fill their tags. The herds in Western Montana are small but stable. The central and eastern parts of the state are showing big declines in the mule deer population. The 2022 statewide estimate was 249,758, which is 44,192 below the 2021 population estimate and 78,555 below the 2020 population estimate. They further broke that number down into each region as follows: region 1 with 6,761; region 2 with 9,607; region 3 with 42,602; region 4 with 56,253; region 5 with 24,980; region 6 with 50,932; and region 7 with 58,623. To put the population decline into perspective, this is how much the population dropped in the following regions in one year by percentage: region 5 dropped 22%, region 6 dropped 25%, and region 7 dropped 24%.
Montana mule deer herds are showing a small improvement in quality, but herds are stable to declining in most areas of the state. The 2021 state estimate was 293,950, which is down 34,363 from 2020. The 2021 mule deer population estimate is the lowest since 2014. Unfortunately, Montana has been giving out so many mule deer doe tags that they have put a hurt on the mule deer population. They further broke that number down into each region as follows: region 1 with 6,055; region 2 with 9,551; region 3 with 43,025; region 4 with 58,082; region 5 with 32,103; region 6 with 67,994; and region 7 with 77,140. The eastern side of the state provides good mule deer hunting. There is a lot of private land, but there is plenty of Block Management and public land for anyone to have a good hunt.
Montana estimates its whitetail population to be at 206,653. That is 6,161 below the 2021 population estimate and is still slightly above the 10-year average of 206,595. The breakdown of whitetail per region is as follows: region 1 with 70,427; region 2 with 39,237; region 3 with 22,913; region 4 with 32,118; region 5 with 14,063; region 6 with 11,732; and region 7 with 16,163. The more popular areas for whitetail are along the river systems and large agricultural areas throughout the eastern part of the state. Private land is the key to hunting whitetail, unless you are hunting the mountainous regions in Western Montana. The majority of whitetails are found on the west side, but the highest scoring bucks are typically taken on the eastern half of the state.
Montana is a fun state to go on a deer hunt as long as you keep your expectations in check. If you have any questions about the general deer hunting opportunities or outfitters in Montana, give us a call!
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The Montana application deadline for deer is April 1, 2023.
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|Big Game Combination License (Elk & Deer)||$1,245.50|
|Deer Combination License||$741.50|
|Youth Big Game Combination License||$636.50|
|Youth Deer Combination License||$384.50|
|Special Deer Permit Application||$5|
|Bow and Arrow License (mandatory for all archery hunts)||$10|
|Preference Point Fee for Combination License (optional)||$100|
|Outfitter Preference Point Fee for Combination License (optional but must hunt with an outfitter)||$100|
|Bonus Point Fee per Species (optional)||$20|
|*All Combination License prices include the required Base Hunting License, Conservation License, Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Pass, and Application Fees.|