LIBBY — Proposals to create a new trophy mule deer buck area near Libby and reduce the number of mountain goat permits in and around the Bob Marshall Wilderness will get an airing at four Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks public meetings in northwest Montana.

Beginning this Saturday in Kalispell, the meetings are an opportunity for state officials to share information and gather input on tentative hunting season dates and rules for the next two years.

The proposal drawing the most interest in northwest Montana was generated by sportsmen mostly from the Libby area.

The citizen initiative asks the Fish and Wildlife Commission to set aside a portion of Hunting District 103 in the Fisher River area near Libby for permit-only hunting of mule deer bucks.

FWP’s Region 1 currently doesn’t have a full-season, limited permit area for mule deer bucks. In other places in the state, those areas have been popular for hunters hoping to harvest a trophy mule deer.

George Mercer is the spokesman for the citizen group spearheading the proposal.

In December 2016, Mercer said a group of about 35 sportsmen sat down to discuss the idea of creating a mule deer buck permit-only area in the Libby area.

That group decided to move forward and hosted a public meeting last summer that drew 80 sportsmen. Those sportsmen agreed on the area that would be recommended to the commission. A petition was signed by 454 people, including the Lincoln County commission, sheriff and state representatives.

“We knew that to get the commission to allow for public comment, we needed to be able to show that we had support for this proposal,” Mercer said. “It’s a little bit out of the ordinary for a citizen group to push for this kind of a proposal.”

The proposal includes setting aside about 132,000 acres of HD 103, which is about 24 percent of the hunting district, for permit-only mule deer buck hunting. Initially, the sportsmen are asking the state to offer only five permits in the area. As mature mule deer buck numbers begin to increase, the permit numbers could climb to as high as 15.

Sportsmen would like to see the change in place by next hunting season. The commission will vote on the proposal at its season-setting meeting on Thursday, Feb. 15.

Montana FWP doesn’t support the proposal.

While state biologists agree the proposal would limit opportunity for people to harvest deer in the area, they don’t think it would make much difference in overall mule deer population growth.

“We don’t think there is a biological reason for it,” FWP’s Region 1 Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson said. “It’s more of a social decision. … All across the state there are certain groups of sportsmen who want to have the opportunity to harvest larger mule deer bucks. They would like to see this kind of management.”

At the same time, Anderson said there are hunters who just want meat in their freezers.

“This area is a pretty popular area to hunt,” Anderson said. “There is a lot of road access there.

"One of the things that we do see is when you set aside an area for permit-only hunting, it shifts hunting pressure to other areas. That's one of the things you have to think about.”

Across the state, mule deer populations are up and down. Anderson expects that this year’s harvest of mule deer will be down from the year before.

This winter, FWP biologists are beginning a study to look at three mule deer populations in hopes of gleaning some information on what’s happening with populations in the Fisher River, Whitefish Range and on the Rocky Mountain Front.

A total of 30 mule deer will be trapped and collared in each of the different areas. Blood samples will be taken to determine pregnancy rates. The deer will be tracked and any mortality documented.

Mercer said the citizens’ group of sportsmen isn’t bothered by the department’s lack of support for the proposal.

“At the end of the day, the department works for the hunters and sportsmen in Montana,” he said. “I believe we have shown them that there is support for this proposal. Sportsmen for this area and from other places would like to see more special permit areas in place.”

Beyond the mule deer proposal, Anderson said the department is recommending eliminating mountain goat hunting in five districts located in the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex. Two other districts would be limited to one permit apiece.

Like other areas in Montana, mountain goat populations have been in decline in the Bob Marshall. Those populations haven’t responded to earlier cuts to permit numbers.

The statewide proposals are available for review and comment at fwp.mt.gov/hunting under “Opportunity for Public Comment.”

The public meetings are set for:

• Kalispell — Saturday, Jan. 6, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., FVCC, Arts & Technology Building

• Trout Creek — Tuesday, Jan. 9, 7-9 p.m., Lakeside Motel & Resort

• Libby — Tuesday, Jan. 16, 7-9 p.m., Libby Memorial Center

• Eureka — Thursday, Jan. 18, 7-9 p.m., Lincoln Electric Co-Op

Comments may be submitted at the meetings, online or by mail to: FWP Wildlife Division, “Attn: hunting season proposals,” PO Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620.

The deadline to submit comments is 5 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 24. The Fish and Wildlife Commission will review comments and recommendations and adopt final regulations at its Feb. 15 meeting in Helena.

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