Two more deer have tested positive for chronic wasting disease in south-central Montana’s Carbon County, the results coming just a day before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission will decide the parameters of a hunt to determine how far the sickness has spread in the area.
A mule deer doe killed near Belfry and a mule deer buck shot close to Warren, along with last week’s detection of the disease in a whitetail doe killed east of Joliet, has prompted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to recommend expanding its proposed special hunting zone, along with other changes.
“Things are evolving so fast,” said Bob Gibson, FWP’s Region 5 information officer in Billings. “Thirty things changed in a conference call this morning.”
FWP will recommend the first-of-its-kind special hunt be expanded north to the Yellowstone River, roughly following the Carbon County border south all the way to Wyoming. The hunt would also now include more of Hunting District 510, east to Crooked Creek, to account for detection of the disease in the buck killed near Warren.
Another proposed change would alter the initially proposed split season to a single season, running from Dec. 15 to Feb. 15. Fewer tags would be issued for mule deer but more tags overall would be available. The proposal is for 600 tags for each species with that allotment being split between 100 whitetail either-sex tags, 500 whitetail doe tags and 100 either-sex mule deer tags and 500 mule deer doe licenses.
At first FWP was proposing 500 tags each for two separate seasons for mule deer only, but the fast-moving nature of detections continues to force the agency to alter its proposal while positive disease test results come in. The cost of the licenses is $10 for residents, $20 for nonresidents. Up to six of the B licenses can be purchased unless the hunter has already obtained other B licenses during the general season. Apprentice hunters cannot take part.
The Montana Wildlife Federation is encouraging FWP to expand its testing and hunting to elk in the region during the late shoulder season, which runs to Jan. 1 in many Region 5 hunting districts.
“There’s no reason not to take advantage of those harvested animals,” said Nick Gevock, MWF’s conservation director. “If needed, they should issue more licenses for elk.”
Gibson said there’s been no discussion to expand the hunt to include elk since shoulder seasons are already underway.
So far this hunting season, 1,300 deer have been tested in south-central Montana with only five testing positive. The strategy behind the special hunt is to try and determine disease prevalence.
“We still don’t have a good geographic distribution for it,” Gibson said. “Below 5 percent is what we’d like to see.”
The tests so far haven’t been extensive enough to assess prevalence, he added, since not everyone hunting in Carbon County had their animal tested. That’s why all hunters who kill deer in the special hunt will be required to provide their deer’s tissue for sampling.
“This will be a more statistically sound hunt,” Gibson said, with FWP expecting roughly 30 percent of hunters to be successful.
Gevock said FWP needs to consider being even more aggressive during these early stages of CWD detection. The Montana Wildlife Federation is backing eradication of the disease, not just containing it at low levels in wildlife.
“It’s serious,” he said. “This is a Frankenstein disease.”
He said MWF is also advocating a working group with bordering states and Canadian provinces to provide a more unified fight, especially now that a deer shot north of Chester along the Montana Hi-Line tested positive for CWD.
“It’s clear it’s coming in from all directions,” Gevock said. “That’s very disconcerting.”
The new CWD detections have also prompted FWP to propose moving its check station north to Joliet, instead of just outside of Bridger. All deer harvested during the hunt must be tested to create a statistically valid sample to assess the spread of the disease in the county’s deer herds. Hunters will also have the option of dropping off their harvested deer’s head at the FWP office in Billings.
“We anticipate a lot of people will be hunting from Bridger and Belfry,” Gibson said, meaning those folks will have to travel farther to have their deer tested.
The brains or spines of harvested deer, elk or moose are not allowed to be taken outside a travel restriction zone that includes Carbon and Yellowstone counties, so deer from the special hunt must either be boned or taken to a processor before leaving the counties.
“We’re trying hard to keep from spreading diseased deer pieces around the state,” Gibson said.
FWP has been fielding numerous calls about the proposed season from hunters anxious to get back out in the field to those with meat already in the freezer wondering if they can still have their steaks and burger tested. (They can’t unless they still have the animal’s intact head.) Out-of-state hunters are also calling to see how they can secure an either-sex tag in hopes of shooting a trophy buck at a minimal cost.
Block Management Areas will only be open to hunters if the cooperator agrees. Wardens are working with other landowners in the area to allow some hunting access. FWP is also discussing whether to ask BMA cooperators to extend their contracts to cover the rest of the special season.
“Landowners are being amazingly cooperative,” Gibson said. “They don’t want CWD on their land. We haven’t talked to as many in the Rock Creek area, where the lots are smaller, it’s more residential and a lot of it is posted (no hunting) for safety reasons.”