It’s 5:30 p.m. and Corey Hockett is cringing at the crunch of a pinecone under his boot. The cringe turns back into a smile after seconds of silence and Hockett continues sneaking down a well-used game trail.
It’s early September, and that means hunting season to Hockett. The University of Montana student has been all smiles since grabbing his bow, tucking his blonde hair under his camouflage hat and starting down the trail.
This weekend marked the beginning of Montana’s archery season. While hunting season is a time to celebrate the great outdoors, many hunters may have a harder time finding deer this year.
Missoula County’s whitetail deer numbers are low after an outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease killed nearly 400 deer last fall. The virus is spread through small biting flies called midges, and causes internal hemorrhaging which is almost always fatal.
According to High Country News, the spread of EHD into the Missoula Valley last year was strange because it is usually found on the East Coast and has never been reported in Western Montana.
Nate Borg, a biologist with the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, says the number of deer lost due to EHD forced some changes in hunting regulations. The archery-only 260 tag, which limits hunters to taking antlerless whitetails, is an example, as hunters can no longer use it west of Highway 93.
“That (EHD) really hit the population hard,” says Borg. “The reason we put that regulation in there is to give those populations a chance to rebound.”
Fortunately, the disease only affects whitetail deer and has not hurt the other game species in Montana.
“It’s weird,” Borg says. “We really don’t see it in elk and we really don’t see it in mule deer.”
Even with the low number of whitetails in the area, Montana hunters still have plenty to look forward to. Borg said many animals survived the particularly harsh winter last year and there is even a new hunting district in the Bitterroot Valley.
Any hunter with an elk tag can now call the FWP office in town and sign up for a roster spot for the Bitterroot farmland district near Florence.
Borg says the new district is the result of a greater distribution of elk and deer low in farmland damaging crops, rather than higher in the mountains. The district offers a unique opportunity for hunters to have relationships with farmers, and gives them a chance to hunt as late as Jan. 15 in some cases.
Back on the trail, Hockett creeps through dry grass and brown pine needles. He stops and crouches as three cow elk run through the trees 100 yards in front of him. He smiles at the sight of the elk.
“I really like adrenaline rushes,” he says. "And when you get really close to an elk or get close to an animal that you are hunting your heart rate is jacked, and it's an awesome feeling.”
It's a quiet evening in the woods. Other than the cow elk, there's not a lot going on. But Hockett is not discouraged in the least. He's just happy to hunt.
“Being able to drive 30 minutes and be so secluded from everyone, to be 100 yards from an elk … There is a lot of people in this world that can’t do that, and it is truly a blessing,” he said.
A lone bull elk bugles from far off to break the silence of the evening. Hockett can hardly contain his excitement. The bull is too far off to hunt with legal shooting time drawing to a close, but the sound has made Hockett’s night. Hunting season is here.
Hockett sings: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”