On the prowl

A mule deer buck closes in on a feeding doe. The breeding season for deer in Montana runs from the end of October through much of November, a good time to catch a wary buck out in the open.

BRETT FRENCH, Gazette Staff

If Chronic Wasting Disease is detected in Montana’s deer or elk, the department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks will institute special hunts, restrictions on transporting animal parts and potentially targeted culls, under a plan approved for public comment Tuesday.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission agreed to send the department’s plan out to the public. It details monitoring for the disease and steps the state will take if detected.

CWD, which is fatal in deer, elk, moose and caribou and affects the nervous system, has never been detected in Montana, although it is in multiple neighboring states and provinces.

The plan calls for rotating surveillance areas and testing hunter-harvested and road-killed deer and elk, John Vore, game management bureau chief, told the commission.

The disease is most prevalent in mule deer and more common in males, he said. The surveillance will weigh testing in favor of animals known to be more likely to carry the disease, meaning a buck mule deer is worth more points than a cow elk, for example. Testing so far this year has come up negative.

Animals with CWD often look emaciated with drooping ears and act disoriented, Vore said. It has not been shown to affect livestock or be dangerous to humans.

Montana has a few things working in its favor that may limit the detection or potential spread of CWD, Vore said. Liberal hunting of mule deer tends to limit the number of bucks in the herd. With some exceptions, deer in Montana also tend to do less migrating than those in other states, he said.

Once it gets into a herd with more than 20 percent of animals infected, which may take decades, CWD can cause declines of more than 30 percent. Montana’s plan is designed to detect the disease at 1 percent infection with a 95 percent confidence, Vore said.

If detected, FWP will launch an initial response area with a 10-mile radius around the detection. The department will then sample animals – potentially between 150 and 300 – in the area using public hunters. If some small areas are considered hot spots for CWD, FWP may consider a targeted cull to remove animals. Other steps may include fencing off attractants, hazing animals and dispersal hunts.

Long-term management will aim to keep prevalence of the disease at less than 5 percent of the herd, Vore said, saying it is very unlikely to eradicate CWD. While it may be possible for CWD to transmit from feed infected with bodily fluids, the majority of transmissions come from live animals, he added.

Communication, particularly with a detection, is also a major component of FWP’s strategy. That includes public meetings and media campaigns and poses a challenge due to the years it can take for the disease to significantly impact the herd, Vore said.

Chad Klinkenborg, Montana regional director for the Mule Deer Foundation, was part of an advisory committee that worked on the plan over the past year applauded the proactive approach.

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“We got involved because chronic wasting disease has such a detrimental effect on mule deer, so getting out ahead of it and putting resources into detecting it early,” he said before the meeting. “We’re hoping that the public takes notice of this and helps FWP try to find the disease if it’s already in Montana, and we suspect that it is.”

Representatives from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Montana Wildlife Federation also threw their support behind the plan Tuesday.

As discussion on the CWD proposed plan closed, commission chairman Dan Vermillion of Livingston took aim at wildlife feeding programs in Wyoming. Opponents of winter feeding believe it can be a vector for spreading disease by concentrating large groups of animals.

Detection of CWD in Wyoming is within 7 miles of the Montana border.

“What Wyoming is doing with its elk herds is an abomination,” Vermillion said.

With commission approval, the plan goes out for 30-day public comment before final consideration in February. Comments can be submitted at fwp.mt.gov.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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