A white-tail deer on treks through snow at the nature sanctuary at Story Mill Community Park last week.

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Approximately 17% of white-tailed deer tested during a management hunt in southwest Montana turned out suspect or positive for chronic wasting disease, according to data collected by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Of the 318 samples collected during the special hunt, 305 have received a result, officials wrote. Of those 305 samples, 52 have tested suspect or positive for CWD.

Sample submissions by hunters are voluntary, so the numbers may not reflect rates in all deer harvested during the hunt.

The CWD management hunt took place in all or portions of nine hunting districts in and around the Ruby Valley between Dec. 15 and Feb. 15. It was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission in December after FWP data revealed rates of the disease in whitetails exceeded 40% in some areas.

Officials hoped the hunt would reduce deer densities and prevent further spread of the disease. They were particularly worried about the disease reaching migratory populations of elk, moose and mule deer, which are seasonally connected with whitetails in and around the valley.

CWD is an always-fatal prion disease that infects cervids including deer, elk and moose. It was first detected in Montana in 2017, but has since spread to southwestern, northwestern and eastern parts of the state. It was first detected in the Ruby Valley in 2019.

FWP wrote that rates of CWD were highest in HD 322, which stretches between Dillon, Twin Bridges and Alder. Prevalence in whitetails there was around 25% suspect or positive, according to the hunting data.

Combined data from the general hunting season and management hunt showed that CWD was 13% prevalent in whitetails in hunting districts 324 and 326 southeast of Dillon. The rate was 3% in HD 320 between Waterloo and Virginia City. No samples turned out positive in hunting districts 325, 329, 330, 331 and 340.

Deer harvest and population trend surveys taken this spring will help wildlife managers gauge how much the management hunt helped to reduce whitetail densities, FWP wrote. The state aims to keep CWD prevalence below 5%, according to its CWD management plan.

“Without population reductions, CWD prevalence is expected to increase substantially in the coming years,” FWP officials wrote. “Hunter and landowner participation, proper carcass disposal and minimizing prolonged concentrations of deer will all continue to play a critical role in managing CWD.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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