More details about a first-of-its-kind hunt in south-central Montana to determine the spread of chronic wasting disease have been revealed.
One thousand special mule deer B licenses are being requested by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to issue to hunters in an attempt to kill more than 300 deer in the region.
The request is one of many items on the agenda for the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which will meet on Dec. 7 in Helena. The commission must approve the special hunt because FWP is still in the process of creating its chronic wasting disease plan. Until then, the agency is following the guidelines of the draft plan and communicating with commissioners.
"We commend FWP for jumping on this early," said Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
A number of unknowns surround the process, such as: Will hunters respond in appropriate numbers?
“The success of this effort is obviously going to hang on hunters,” said Greg Lemon, FWP information officer.
If hunters don’t buy and use the licenses, FWP will have to consider other options.
“We’ve lined out the plan to provide us with a variety of options,” Lemon said. “Before we got to some type of agency removal or sampling of the deer we would be doing everything we can to use hunters by using partners … to try and help us out.
“I think it’s important we have a quick response to this and that’s what we’re doing,” Lemon added, but he said that if enough samples aren't collected that won't be an immediate problem. “I don’t think we’re feeling that pressure to get 368 samples come hell or high water.”
FWP is requesting that the special licenses go on sale by Dec. 11. The first special hunt would begin on Dec. 15 and run through Jan. 14 in what’s being called the Bridger Special CWD Hunt, because of its proximity to the town of Bridger, located 50 miles south of Billings. The second hunt period would be from Jan. 15 to Feb. 15. Five hundred licenses would be sold for each hunt period at a price of $10 each for Montana residents, $20 for nonresidents. The licenses would be specific to each hunt period.
“When we reach sampling objective we’ll stop the hunt,” Lemon said.
Unlike a damage hunt, which focuses on the removal of female animals to reduce populations, licenses for the CWD hunt would be issued for does and bucks, with the proportion mirroring the buck-to-doe ratio in the area’s mule deer population. The breakdown for the license sales will be 400 antlerless and 100 either-sex per period. Each hunter could purchase one either-sex license and up to six antlerless tags. Hunters who had purchased B tags for the regular season would have those count toward their total number of possible B tags.
The only legal licenses for the hunt will be the special licenses, hunters cannot use leftover tags from the general season.
The special mule deer B licenses would only be valid in the designated hunt area, which will be defined in maps given to those who buy the licenses.
The general region for the hunt would range from Red Lodge to Fromberg, east of Highway 310 to the border of the Crow Indian Reservation and the western edge of Hunting District 510. It would also include the towns of Belfry and Bearcreek, and east of Bridger and southeast of Fromberg.
“We aren’t handing out copies of the map at this point,” Lemon said. “We’re trying to be as open about what we’re planning as we can be … to prepare landowners and hunters. But we’re worried about having to redraw the map and have a bad draft circulating around.”
All animals shot during the hunt would be tested for CWD to determine the disease’s spread. A check station may be set up at the rest area just north of Bridger. Successful hunters would be asked to pinpoint on a map or with GPS coordinates where the deer was killed.
“We want to make it as convenient as we can for folks,” Lemon said.
FWP is also calling on landowners in the special hunt area to cooperate with the agency and hunters as mule deer at this time of the year tend to concentrate on agricultural fields where food is more readily available, Lemon said.
FWP has not decided whether to reimburse those hunters whose animals test positive for CWD for their license expense, as was the case during the general season. To qualify the hunter had to return the deer meat, carcass and antlers to FWP. The agency will not reimburse hunters for the cost of having their meat processed, should it turn out to be CWD positive. FWP has been getting its lab results in about 10 to 11 days, but hunters are typically advised to let their animal’s carcass age no more than a week. That puts hunters in the awkward position of having to pay to have their meat processed, or doing the work themselves, knowing they may be advised to not consume the venison.
Any hunters traveling to the area to hunt will not be allowed to take carcasses out of Carbon or Yellowstone counties without the animals being deboned and the antlers free of tissue. This is meant to reduce the chance that an infected animal's carcass may be left somewhere that could infect animals outside of the current CWD detection zone.
“Our real concern is transporting carcasses from CWD-infected animals to other parts of the state,” Lemon said. “But the biggest threat to transmission is a live animal walking around.”
The hunt would also reduce the number of mule deer, somewhat lessening the chance for CWD to spread. The disease is known to transfer more easily when animals are crowded together, like on winter range habitat.
Two mule deer bucks shot this fall in Hunting District 510, located south of Bridger, have tested positive for CWD. One was killed 10 miles southeast of Bridger and the other 3 miles south of Belfry. The designated CWD hunting area, known as the Initial Response Area, is roughly a 10 mile radius around where each deer was killed.
FWP is also requesting that it be allowed to issue another 1,000 licenses for the special hunt, if necessary, based on test results from samples taken from deer harvested during the regular season. Those results aren’t due back until after the Dec. 7 commission meeting. More positive results could prompt FWP to expand the hunt area.
“Other CWD positives may be found through ongoing surveillance between this writing and the end of the general season that would expand the IRA,” FWP writes in its agenda item. “In that case we would redefine the IRA and sampling needs and need to issue more licenses before initiating the hunt and selling licenses.”
Chronic wasting disease is a contagious, fatal illness that can also infect elk, whitetail deer and moose. So far it has been detected in 21 states, including Wyoming, where the disease is believed to have migrated into Montana from, and two Canadian provinces. The disease is not known to spread to cattle or humans, but hunters who kill an animal that tests positive for CWD are advised not to eat the meat.
“Compared to a regular-season hunt, we realize there are a lot of steps we’re asking people to go through,” Lemon said. “We’re hopeful people see the importance of this, not just for the meat, but to determine the best way to manage the disease going forward.”