Forest Service Land Exchange

A herd of elk retreat up the side of the mountain on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, on the 583-acre parcel of land that the Forest Service recently exchanged with the Shooting Star Ranch.

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Last winter’s mild weather and this summer’s exceptional drought could have contrasting effects on big game hunting in southwest Montana this fall, according to wildlife managers.

The predictions come as staff at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks prepare for chronic wasting disease surveillance during the upcoming deer and elk archery season and general rifle season. Southwest Montana is a priority surveillance area this year.

Montana’s archery season runs from Sept. 4 to Oct. 17 and rifle season runs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 28. Hunters can also bag antlerless elk on private land in some areas of southwest Montana during early and late shoulder seasons.

Mild weather last winter meant survival among big game species was mostly good across southwest Montana. However, more animals could die off this winter if cold weather proves to be extreme, according to a recent big game forecast from FWP.

Exceptional drought in southwest Montana during the summer months resulted in limited forage for big game animals. That lack of forage could impact antler growth and reproduction, and weaker animals might not make it through the winter, especially if weather is extreme, officials predicted.

Recent counts showed elk numbers in districts around the Tendoy Mountains, Pioneer Mountains, Gravelly Mountains, Tobacco Root Mountains and in the Livingston area were over objectives, officials wrote.

Other hunting districts around the Big Hole Valley, Townsend and Helena largely saw good or average elk numbers. Near Bozeman, elk distribution varied across hunting districts, according to FWP.

Mule deer numbers are up in some areas of southwest Montana and down in others. Recruitment rates for mule deer also vary according to the area.

In some hunting districts, including areas near Sheridan and Livingston, low mule deer counts indicated that the animals could be concentrated off of the winter range where surveying occurs, according to FWP.

Near Bozeman, mule deer numbers were within objectives in most hunting districts, and overwinter survival between 2020 and 2021 was good.

White-tailed deer numbers are high across much of southwest Montana, though numbers were down slightly in Paradise Valley and in the Shields Valley, according to FWP.

In the Ruby and Jefferson river valleys, white-tailed deer populations dropped 50% and 14% in 2021, respectively. The declines were because of a special chronic wasting disease management hunt that ran from Dec. 15 to Feb. 15, FWP confirmed.

Last year, wildlife managers detected a high prevalence of CWD among whitetails in the area between Twin Bridges and Sheridan. To reduce whitetail densities and limit the disease’s spread, officials called on hunters to remove much of the population.

CWD is an always-fatal prion disease that can infect deer, elk and moose. Its symptoms develop slowly and it spreads through direct contact between animals.

The disease was first detected in Montana in 2017 and has since spread to much of the state. Gallatin County’s first confirmed positive case was in May, 2020.

There is no known incident of the disease spreading to humans or livestock, but the Centers for Disease Control recommends that people refrain from consuming CWD-positive meat.

Region 3, which encompasses all of southwest Montana, will be a CWD priority surveillance area for FWP in 2021. That means the department is making a concerted effort to gather samples from hunters in the region.

Though it is not required, officials are encouraging hunters in southwest Montana to submit samples and report sick-looking deer, elk or moose to the department.

“Hunters can either take the samples themselves, fill out the online hunter submission form and mail them to our Wildlife Health Lab in Bozeman, or they can bring the animal (or head) to an FWP regional office or CWD Sampling Station,” according to officials.

Off-site CWD sampling stations won’t be up and running until the general rifle season starts, but archery hunters can still call regional headquarters to schedule appointments for CWD testing with staff, Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesperson for FWP, said.

Once the general rifle season begins, there will be a few testing stations scattered throughout Region 3, according to Jacobsen. The hours when the stations remain open will depend on staffing and local demand, he said.

“Once those sites are identified and we have the staff available to run them, we will post them on (the department’s CWD management website),” Jacobsen said. He encouraged hunters to continually check FWP’s CWD website for updates.

Hunters are now required to either leave the spinal column and head of any deer, elk or moose hunted in Montana at the kill site or dispose of the parts at a sanctioned landfill after butchering and processing.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission in February passed the new rule in an effort to curtail the spread of CWD.

“Carcass parts, such as brain, eyes, spleen, lymph glands, and spinal cord material, should be bagged and disposed of in a landfill or may be left at the kill site,” department officials wrote. “Dumping carcasses is illegal, unethical and can spread diseases, including chronic wasting disease.”

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

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