As more cases of chronic wasting disease are diagnosed in hunter-killed deer in north-central Montana, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a larger deer harvest in the Carbon County area in an attempt to slow the disease’s spread.
Similar changes in Regions 4 and 6 to increase the deer harvest in northern Montana aren’t immediately necessary, John Vore, Game Management Bureau chief, told the commissioners at their monthly meeting in Helena on Monday.
“Those are all things to be discussed,” he said, after another 48 more samples taken from deer in those northern counties are analyzed for CWD. “Then we’ll go over options for next year.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks announced on Friday that nine more hunter-harvested deer had tested positive for CWD during the last week of Montana’s general hunting season. That brings this year's testing total to 22 CWD-positive animals from across the state — five from the CWD positive area south of Billings and 17 from along the Hi-Line. CWD is always fatal and may persist in the environment for years. The disease can also infect elk and moose.
There has been no documented incident of CWD spreading to humans who eat an infected animal, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against it.
The next step in dealing with the disease in northern Montana is to determine how widespread it has become, Vore said. That will be based on population estimates and further testing during next year’s regular hunting season. He did not anticipate the creation of late hunts, as took place last winter after CWD was first found in Carbon and Liberty county deer.
Vore called the disease slow moving and noted that it takes a while to show up in deer populations, so there is no immediate hurry to thin the animals through a special hunt.
“We think we can achieve what we need to do in the biennial season setting,” he added.
The commission’s decision also comes after CWD was found in a mule deer killed in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.
“We have always known that CWD is very close to us in Wyoming,” Vore said, “but this moves it farther west.”
Since Yellowstone National Park elk utilize winter feed grounds just south of Grand Teton, and are known to migrate north into the park in the summer, commission chairman Dan Vermillion once again criticized Wyoming officials for continuing the winter concentration of elk at 20 elk feeding grounds where disease can more easily be spread.
“The most immediate way it spreads is animal to animal, a wet nose touching a wet nose,” Vore said. “Any concentration (of animals) artificially or otherwise is a concern to us.”
“Obviously we have a different view than Wyoming and the unnatural conditions they are creating,” said Commissioner Shane Colton, of Billings. “Hopefully we can have a more candid conversation with our neighbors.”
Commissioner Tim Aldrich, of Missoula, called himself an “old deer hunter” and said he sees chronic wasting disease as a “real, real change” adding to the difficulty of wildlife management today and into the future.
The main tactic FWP will employ going forward is trying to keep infection rates low. Carbon County has an infection rate among its whitetail and mule deer herds of about 2 percent. Vore said some states are struggling with 20 to 40 percent rates of infection.
Next hunting season FWP will move its testing program to Region 7 in southeastern Montana. Vore said agency officials fully expect to detect incidents of CWD there, as well, since the disease has already been found in the Dakotas.
Despite the state being surrounded by CWD, having caught the disease’s spread into Montana early, Vore said the department thinks the state is in a good place.
“They didn’t know 30 years ago what we know now,” he said.
He also noted that because Montana manages for hunter opportunity with its five-week long rifle season — a season that runs through the annual deer mating season known as the rut — as opposed to managing for trophy older bucks, the state is in a better position. Mule deer bucks are especially susceptible to CWD.
“We think we can be successful keeping CWD where it is and not spreading widely in the state,” Vore said.
Halting or slowing the disease’s spread into Montana won’t be easy and will tax FWP’s staffing and budgets, Vore said under questioning from Vermillion. The commissioner encouraged the department to seek general fund money to help in the fight since it is more than just a wildlife issue. FWP director Martha Williams noted that Montana’s congressional delegation is also seeking federal funding to help fight the disease.
“I think it’s time to really elevate this subject dramatically,” Vermillion said.
The decision to increase the deer harvest in HDs 502, 510, 520 and 575 was met with support from sporting groups.
“There’s a lot at stake here, so we appreciate some (affirmative) action,” said Jeff Herbert of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance.
“It’s become pretty apparent in these last few weeks that CWD is more prevalent than we had hoped,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, in supporting the decision.
Vore said FWP’s main concern is that Montanans will forget about the disease as time progresses. The agency will send out a letter to all hunters, whether they pursue big game or birds, to explain the CWD issue.
“We worry that five years down the road it won’t be on people’s radar,” he said.