Charting a new course in what is likely to become a much more common scenario, the state’s first hunt to determine the spread of chronic wasting disease in a southcentral Montana county was approved on Thursday.
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission OK’d what could be a two-month long hunt that had to be modified a few times by staff as new detections of CWD in the area continued right up to the day before the meeting. So far, six deer have tested positive in the area, four mule deer bucks, one mule deer doe and one whitetail doe.
“This is a dynamic situation that’s constantly changing the landscape,” said John Vore, Game Management Bureau chief, during the commission’s meeting in Helena. He noted that within an hour of the first positive lab test being returned on Nov. 7 agency staffers were meeting.
The hunt will begin on Dec. 15, but only those hunters who purchase special B licenses can take part. The licenses will be available online, at license vendors and FWP offices beginning on Monday, Dec. 11. The cost is $10 per license for residents, $20 for nonresidents. Up to six of the tags can be purchased, provided the hunter did not purchase any B licenses during the general season.
There will be 1,200 licenses issued on a first-come basis: 100 either-sex whitetail, 500 whitetail doe only; 100 either-sex mule deer, 500 mule deer doe only. Hunters may purchase only one either-sex license. Apprentice hunters cannot take part.
FWP wants hunters to harvest about 200 deer of each species, after which the hunt will be closed. If the mule deer quota is reached first, that hunt could be closed while the whitetail hunt continues, Vore explained. If the quotas aren’t met the hunts could continue until Feb. 15.
All harvested deer must be taken to FWP’s check station at Joliet, which will be staffed from 10 a.m. to an hour after sunset, except on holidays, or the deer’s head can be dropped off at Region 5 headquarters in Billings so a tissue sample can be extracted for testing. Hunters will also be required to provide either GPS coordinates for where the deer was shot or point out the position on a map.
Vore said there are about 6,100 mule deer and 5,100 whitetail deer in the designated hunting zone, a map of which will be given to all hunters who purchase a license. The map will also include other information about the hunt.
No Block Management Area will be open to hunters unless the department is able to negotiate with the landowners an extension of their contracts. That means hunters are on their own to get access to private lands, although FWP is negotiating with large landowners to allow limited public hunter access.
If the quota is not met, Vore said the department will consider its options.
“This is a disease that moves slowly through a population,” he said. “We can revisit it again next year. And we can ask for additional hunting.”
One of the big unknowns is how many hunters will respond given that officials advise that deer that test positive not be eaten. Hunters with animals that test positive will be given another license for free, if they so choose. Based on the number of calls to regional offices, officials are optimistic that hunters will take part.
“This is new terrain to us,” Vore said. “But I think that we’ll get participation.”
Dave Pac encouraged the department to consider issuing permits to department officials to ensure the deer harvest is spread out across the landscape to provide a scientifically sound sample. He worried that hunters may tend to concentrate in certain areas.
Others suggested that predators, like wolves and coyotes, are vital to limiting the spread of CWD by killing and consuming sickened animals, removing them from the population.
“I ask you to enable the predators’ role,” said K.C. York of Hamilton. “We can’t afford to remove any natural tool from the tool box.”
For more information, log on to FWP's chronic wasting disease page at fwp.mt.gov/CWD.