In an attempt to reduce deer populations where chronic wasting disease has been detected, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing to increase the number of hunting licenses across Carbon County.
The proposal goes before the Fish and Wildlife Commission at its Dec. 10 meeting in Helena. Public comment will run through 5 p.m. on Jan. 18, and a final decision will take place at the February commission meeting.
Testing of hunter-harvested deer last year suggested about 2 percent of the deer population in the county may be infected with the always fatal disease. CWD is also known to infect elk and moose.
Deer in northern Montana have also tested positive for CWD, two in Liberty County and three in Blaine County.
Under the FWP proposals, mule deer regulations will be liberalized to increase the harvest. On the Montana-Wyoming border in Hunting District 510 — which includes the Pryor Mountains and where CWD prevalence is estimated to be highest at 10 percent — the proposal eliminates the unlimited 510-50 buck mule deer permit and establishes an either-sex mule deer season.
“This season proposal is designed to reduce the number of older age bucks and to stabilize or slightly reduce the mule deer population especially in the area close to the CWD endemic area,” the proposal stated. “Maintaining lower densities of mule deer is thought to be the best preventative measure to control the spread of CWD.”
Under the proposal, FWP biologist Shawn Stewart predicted that “mule deer buck and doe harvest will increase by about 50 percent. The post season buck/doe ratio will likely decline to about 10 bucks per 100 does.
“Currently the mule deer population on the Sykes Ridge trend area is 21 percent above the long-term average with fawn/doe ratio going into winter 13 percent above average.”
The proposals come despite the fact that last winter was so harsh that Stewart predicted fawn mortality may have exceeded 50 to 60 percent in Carbon County and 10 to 15 percent of adult does may have died.
Hunting District 502 has Highway 212, which travels south to Red Lodge, as its western border while the Crow Reservation borders the district to the east. This area contains much of the agricultural fields along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, which divides the district.
In HD 502 Stewart is proposing changing the general mule deer season from buck-only to either-sex.
The change is meant to “increase the harvest of antlerless mule deer … to at least 200 animals and reduce or stabilize the number of deer on the Dry Creek trend area in the southern portion of the hunting district” where “the goal will be to maintain the recruitment counts at less than 600 mule deer in the long term.
“Currently the mule deer population on the Dry Creek trend area is 31 percent below the long-term average with fawn recruitment in 2018 of 14 fawns/100 adults.”
Stewart noted that the increased harvest could also “alleviate some of the developing game damage issues as well as beginning to address the CWD threat.” Most of the land in HD 502 is private, meaning hunter access will be necessary to reach FWP’s goals.
Only a small portion of HD 520, the area of the district east of Highway 212 along the Beartooth Front, would be targeted for increased mule deer harvest, changing the regulations from buck-only to either-sex. The increased harvest would also assist the department in reducing game damage complaints, the proposal stated.
Stewart would like to see the mule deer doe harvest in that portion of the district increased to 35, “and stabilize the number of deer on the Grove Creek agricultural fields to about 75 animals in spring.” In recent years deer counts on the fields have averaged about 132 mule deer.
Located west of Highway 212 and bordered to the north by the Yellowstone River, HD 575 extends west almost to Greycliff. Stewart is proposing to double the number of mule deer B licenses in the district from 250 to 500.
“The objective of the season change is to increase the harvest of antlerless mule deer in this HD by at least 100 animals from the expected harvest level in 2018 and reduce or stabilize the number of deer, especially in the eastern portion of the hunting district.
“Mule deer habitat in (the) western portion of HD 575 was severely damaged by the Derby fire in 2006 and has not recovered,” Stewart noted. “Mule deer spring counts on the Magpie Census Area are currently running 43 percent below the long-term average and fawn recruitment is consistently poor. However, those spring counts may, in part, reflect changes in winter distribution of mule deer as a result of portions of the winter range being destroyed by fire. Post season surveys on the census area since the time of the fire suggest some recovery of the population. Those post-season surveys are likely the best reflection of the overall deer numbers across the hunting district.”
As noted in the commission’s paperwork, the proposals are meant to maintain “low densities of deer and low buck:doe ratios in hunting districts with CWD and adjacent hunting districts to keep disease prevalence low and prevent disease spread. We are proposing to manage for lower buck:doe ratios because bucks are two to three times more likely to be infected with CWD and more likely to spread it through the population.”
So far this hunting season, which ended on Nov. 25, one mule deer doe killed by a hunter in Carbon County tested positive for CWD. That deer came from HD 575, northeast of Joliet. Last hunting season, and during an extended winter hunt to help determine the extent of CWD infection in the area, 10 deer tested positive for exposure to CWD.
“A total of 215 mule deer and 112 white-tailed deer were harvested in Carbon County during the special CWD hunt,” according to a March Gazette story. “Additional harvested and tested deer during the general hunting season were also factored in, bringing the total animals tested to 400.”
So far, no documentation exists showing that CWD can be transferred to humans who eat meat from a sick deer, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against eating game meat that has tested positive for CWD.