Buck fever

A buck peeks over a barbed-wire fence recently in Bozeman.

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High rates of chronic wasting disease in and around the Ruby Valley have prompted officials to ramp up the killing of white-tailed deer in nine hunting districts across southwest Montana.

Brian Wakeling, game management bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said at a virtual Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting Thursday that the prevalence of CWD in whitetails this year exceeded 40% in some areas around the Ruby Valley. The disease was first detected in the valley in 2019.

“These deer are contiguous with white-tailed deer and moose throughout the Ruby Jefferson, Beaverhead and Big Hole valleys,” officials wrote. “They are seasonally connected to migratory populations of elk, moose, and mule deer that occupy adjacent upland habitats.”

To prevent CWD from spreading through ungulate populations in other valleys, the Fish and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to approve a CWD management hunt from Dec. 15 to Feb. 15 in nine hunting districts.

Wakeling said the hunt is “on the most aggressive end of options for targeted removal.”

Officials hope the hunt will reduce white-tailed deer densities in areas where the disease is prevalent, minimizing the chances that mule deer, elk and moose will contract it.

Hunters with unused 2020 general deer licenses for white-tailed deer of either sexes can still harvest animals in nine hunting districts around Dillon, Ennis, Sheridan and Butte during the management hunt. Hunters with unused 003-00, 331-01 and 399-00 B-licenses can also participate.

The extended season will apply to all or portions of hunting districts 320, 322, 324, 325, 326, 329, 330, 331, and 340. No additional licenses will be sold after the general hunting season apart from the 003-00 license, according to the department. That license will be sold up until Jan. 15, 2021.

Commissioner Pat Byorth said removing more whitetails to save more whitetails seems kind of ironic, “but in the end, it’s to keep whitetails on the ground and minimize the damage to other ungulate species.”

CWD is an always-fatal disease that targets the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose. Animals spread the disease through direct contact. Humans have not been known to contract CWD, though officials warn against consuming meat from animals with the disease.

Since Montana’s first case in 2017, CWD has made its way across the state. It’s caused ungulate populations to decline in some areas. Gallatin County saw its first case this May.

In June, the state approved a management plan to tackle the issue, focusing surveillance in northwest, southwest and eastern Montana.

Surveillance this year suggested a prevalence of 8.3% in 30 whitetails tested in Hunting District 320, just south of the Tobacco Roots. It was 40% in the five whitetails harvested in Hunting District 326 southeast of Dillon.

CWD was 21.8% prevalent in 226 whitetails harvested in Hunting District 322 northeast of Dillon. Officials suspect the prevalence in a specific portion of this district could be as high as 50%.

Commissioner Andrew McKean said he hopes the department does everything possible to incentivize CWD testing of game. “Forty percent prevalence is shockingly high, and in order to sort of prove up on that, we need to get as many samples as possible,” he said.

Wakeling said the department has already documented a high prevalence of CWD in whitetail populations, so it’s more focused on management at this point. It’s encouraging hunters to have their game tested, though testing is not required.

“Next year we want to know what kind of effect this management action took,” Wakeling said.

Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the 40% rate is “staggeringly high,” especially since the disease was introduced to the Ruby Valley just one year ago.

“That suggests either it’s been there a lot longer than we realized, or the spread is extremely rapid, or both,” he said. “This is a bold move that we need to take. This is what it’s going to take to get this under control down there.”

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

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