Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is moving forward with ways to deal with infectious diseases affecting bighorn sheep, deer and elk.
Commissioners decided Thursday to close bighorn sheep hunting in district 455 north of Helena after a die-off in the herd, possibly due to pneumonia, and to allow the captures of four to six adult sheep from Region 2 to be part of a Washington state study into pneumonia transmission.
District 455 includes the Gates of the Mountains and Beartooth Wildlife Management Area.
George Pauley, FWP wildlife management chief, said the study is looking at pathways of disease transmission by bighorn sheep. Pneumonia can be transmitted from domestic to wild sheep — but not the other way around — and the bighorns either die from it or became immune. The question, however, is whether those immune sheep can then infect other members of the herd, including lambs.
The experiment will take sheep from three different infected herds in Montana, Colorado and Nevada,” Pauley said. “They’ll be mingled with pregnant ewes, and the ewes and lambs will be sampled to determine how many pick up the disease and at what rate among the three groups. It’s important research.”
The commission also closed bighorn ewe hunting in District 121 near Thompson Falls after the population dropped by 110 sheep in the past six years due to close encounters with vehicles. Pauley said that there’s a rock outcropping that’s close to a highway, and the sheep like to come down to lick salt off the road.
“There’s some blind corners and not much room along the edge,” Pauley said. “They have fairly extensive methods to warn people like warning lights and signs … but it’s been a problem for some time.”
He said the highway is going to be reconstructed in the future, and that perhaps something will be done to alleviate the problem.
FWP also is making changes to its Chronic Wasting Disease Management Plan, adopted in 2005.While CWD isn’t present in Montana, it is in surrounding states and the Midwest.
The state previously used a $90,000 federal grant to take samples at game check stations during hunting season, and the plan called for “depopulating” a herd if more than 5 percent contracted the disease.
Wisconsin tried depopulated infected herds and that hasn’t proven to be a popular management tool, nor has it reduced the prevalence of the disease, Pauley said. He recommended pulling that option from the plan.
He added that they’re now only receiving $9,000 annually for the testing for CWD, so he received commission approval to also drop that aspect unless an animal appears ill. He said FWP staff is working to identify new alternatives.
“We are looking at wildlife preservation monsters, and clearly all experiments show the way to address it is not to get it into your wildlife population in the first place,” said Commissioner Ron Moody. “It’s hard to unfire your bullet.”
Quentin Kujala, the FWP wildlife management section coordinator, also updated the commission on the effort to limit brucellosis in elk herds. He said FWP staff created a one-page work plan for 2013 at the request of the commission and noted that in the future local working groups will identify and submit their own plans. So far, one working group has been set up in the Paradise Valley.
“We will now go as fast as we can to identify working groups and set up meeting dates,” Kujala added.
The plan calls for local elk hazing efforts in the designated surveillance area from Jun. 15 to June 15, which is a high-risk period for transmission; possible some small-scale fencing efforts; and killing up to 10 elk in the surveillance area when needed as part of a dispersal effort.
“Dispersal hunts will be defined in the context of adjusting elk distribution and not population control,” notes the one-page work plan. “ … Dispersal hunts will be accomplished as early as possible in the risk season and no dispersal hunts will be implemented if elk calves or elk calving behavior are ob-served.”
Future work plans will include public review and comment.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com
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