Montana’s Deer & Elk Seasons Begin – CWD is a threat.

A flashback to a successful deer hunt in 2017.

These next few days there will be an exodus from Montana’s cities and towns, as a variety of SUVs, pickup trucks, ATVs, camping trailers and utility trailers loaded with camping supplies head for the hills.

This Saturday is circled on thousands of calendars; the opening day of the Montana general deer and elk season. For many, it’s simply hunting season.

It’s a great time to be in Montana and an even better time to be living in Montana. With our five-week general season, not to mention other seasons that began in September and run into January, we’re fortunate to have over four months to wander around Montana in search of game to put in the freezer and on dining room tables for the coming months. There are, of course, the bonus seasons such as spring turkeys and black bears and the somewhat controversial shoulder seasons for elk.

Unfortunately, there’s a giant shadow that’s spreading across Montana’s hunting fields, the spreading threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) among our deer, elk and moose.

A couple years ago, Montana’s hunting community was shaken by the discovery of CWD in areas of south central and north central Montana. Last year, we got another big shock at the discovery of CWD among whitetail deer in the area in and around Libby, in northwest Montana.

I’m not a scientist, but you don’t have to be one to be seriously concerned about the CWD outbreak in the Libby area. It’s that bad.

According to a recent (October 9) report posted on the Montana FWP website, samples were taken from 166 white-tailed deer, of which 18 tested positive for CWD. The deer came from a variety of sources, including sickly-looking deer that were removed and tested, road kill, game damage hunts, trapping of urban deer in Libby, hunter harvest, and other, including deer found dead or injured and then euthanized. Five mule deer, three elk and one moose were also sampled and found free of CWD.

Nevertheless, the study indicates that around 10 percent of the Libby area whitetail deer are infected with CWD. 

I occasionally compare notes on CWD with Keith McCaffery, an old friend and college classmate, and a retired Wisconsin deer biologist. While he’s retired, he tries to keep up with what’s happening with deer issues.

He comments that the initial finding of CWD “was a shock to the deer world. We’ve celebrated Montana because…they were one of a couple states to prohibit or greatly limit the captive cervid industry.” A hunter-supported initiative, I-143, overwhelmingly passed in 2000, put a big damper on the then growing elk farm business, by banning new elk farm enterprises as well as selling canned hunts.

He shared a U.S. map that Wisconsin DNR prepared that showed where licensed hunters were from who had harvested some 32,000 deer in four southwestern Wisconsin counties that have a high prevalence of CWD. Hunters from every state in the Union, except Delaware, had harvested a deer in that infection area and presumably brought deer tissue back home. 

Wisconsin regulations are basically the same as Montana’s regarding taking anything other than boned, cut and wrapped meat out of CWD areas. The big problem is that these rules rely on voluntary compliance. Enforcement is darned difficult and there are virtually no realistic limits on where or how far infected tissue could end up. 

As far as long-term management strategy in CWD areas, one goal is to reduce deer population numbers, by increasing deer harvest, especially mature bucks, which are the most susceptible to infection. That might be a hard sell. Telling the public to kill lots more deer to save the deer bears too strong a resemblance to “We had to destroy the village to save the village” from the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, the reality of CWD is that, once established, it’s almost impossible to eradicate, and it will spread to other areas of Montana.

 While CWD is a black cloud on our hunting horizon, let’s celebrate our hunting traditions and, if the hunt is successful, celebrate again every time you put venison on the table.

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