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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Montana’s plan to fight spread of fatal wildlife disease gets stricter

Montana’s wildlife agency will be even more aggressive in fighting chronic wasting disease, according to a final draft management plan. (GREG LEHMAN / AP)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Montana’s wildlife agency will be more aggressive in fighting chronic wasting disease, according to a final draft management plan.

Actions could include initiation of antlered-buck or either-sex mule deer seasons even where Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been managing to reduce the buck harvest. Such less-restrictive regulations might also extend to adjacent hunting districts.

The idea would be to substantially reduce the number of bucks, which are the main carriers of the disease, in hopes of reducing the spread of CWD, an always fatal neurological disease that afflicts deer, elk, caribou and moose. There are no known risks to livestock or humans.

The changes are some of the more aggressive tactics that will be presented to the Fish and Wildlife Commission for its consideration at the group’s meeting in Helena on Thursday.

The document spells out what FWP director Martha Williams had hinted at in a meeting of the Environmental Quality Council last month: The agency has changed its theory that if CWD prevalence is no more than 5 percent, that would be acceptable.

Instead, the final plan now reads: “Even if prevalence is below 5 percent, FWP will initiate CWD management to keep prevalence low and help prevent disease spread.”

That does not mean that special hunts will be enacted whenever a CWD positive deer is found. This winter, FWP held such a hunt in the Chester area after one mule deer buck tested positive for CWD. The Sage Creek Special CWD Hunt sold 157 special tags for mule deer in Hunting District 401, resulting in a harvest of 113 additional deer outside of the regular season. None of those 113 deer tested positive for CWD.

The state’s other – and first – special CWD hunt, held in Carbon County, resulted in an additional harvest of 214 mule deer and 131 whitetails with only three mule deer and one whitetail testing positive for CWD. Another six positive CWD deer – four mule deer bucks, one doe and one whitetail doe – were detected at special CWD surveillance check stations set up in the area during the regular hunting season.

Based on those test results, the prevalence rate in Carbon County was lower than the 5 percent threshold. But a corner of HD 510 near the base of the Pryor Mountains showed a much higher rate, more than 10 percent, which is where game managers would seem likely to focus on increasing the mule deer buck harvest. Yet the 2017 hunting regulations continue to show it as a restricted mule deer buck harvest area.

The final draft plan says a special hunt could be initiated as early as August but can run no later than Feb. 15. Additionally, FWP is proposing to cut back on the sample size necessary to assess disease prevalence during special hunts. For example, on the low end, a sample size of 112 deer would be needed for a deer population of 250. On the high end, a sample of 195 deer would be needed for a herd of 5,000 animals.

“This substantially reduced necessary sample sizes during the hunts, and consequently we think was more palatable to the public, yet still yields satisfactory prevalence estimates for managing CWD,” the FWP agenda item stated.

One unknown that has been answered by the two special hunts is whether sportsmen and women would purchase deer tags at a reduced rate, knowing that the deer they harvested may be infected with CWD, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against eating an infected animal. Those special licenses quickly sold out, all 1,535 of them, with 1,191 going to residents and 344 sold to nonresidents who were willing to drive to Montana in the depths of a harsh winter around the holidays just to hunt.

FWP’s staff has been meeting to discuss future management actions in CWD-endemic areas like HD 510, but the agency has publicized no new plans.

“But based on comments from researchers and managers in CWD-positive states, we should do everything we can to prevent prevalence from growing, and the final version speaks to initiating long-term CWD management with any detection, even at low prevalence,” the agenda stated.

The commission will meet from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at FWP Headquarters, 1420 E. Sixth Ave., in Helena.