Fish, Wildlife Commission adopts state CWD plan

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After a year and a half of revisions, and the discovery of chronic wasting disease in Montana, the Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously voted Thursday to adopt the state’s draft CWD Management Plan.

Although the plan’s 20th draft was presented at last week’s meeting, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson Greg Lemon said the Commission was already familiar with the document.

“The thing is, with the plan, we’ve had ample time to bring the Commission up to speed,” he said. “We’ve been through the plan over and over. This is just a revision of the plan that was already in place.

Lemon explained efforts for the current draft began in the winter of 2016. The original plan was first adopted in 2005, and had been updated as recently as 2013.

While Lemon labeled the 2013 revisions as minor, he considers the changes passed Thursday considerable.

“The plan in 2005 was a very significant document,” he said. “This document really is a substantial update to that 2005 plan.”

It’s an update Lemon credits in part to experience: Montana’s first CWD-positive test result was reported last fall, and the draft guided the state’s response.

“For a plan that’s just now getting adopted, it had quite an exercise in practice out on the ground,” he said.

The plan’s significance also comes from public comment, according to Lemon. One of the biggest changes came in response to the remarks of residents and researchers.

“The main thing that we’re trying to communicate to people is, we’re not going to wait until it reaches 5 percent prevalence to start management,” he said. “During the public comment, and since talking with a lot of experts and the public, they’ve just voiced concern that we would wait until it got to 5 percent or above.”

Previous drafts, including the one guiding last fall’s response to CWD-positive test results, indicated FWP regions would not have to change their management strategies if the disease was present in less than 5 percent of the population.

FWP regions 4 and 5, which both found positive test results last fall, were determined to have less than 1 percent CWD prevalence. Despite the new change in the adopted plan, Lemon said, those regions will not have to overhaul their management plans.

“What we might do is, we might look to change the season structure in those areas to basically allow a little more harvest of deer, and also reduce the management for olderage class bucks,” he said.

Lemon explained Montana limits the chances to hunt mule deer bucks so the animals can grow and provide more opportunities for future hunters to shoot larger animals.

The problem, he continued, is mature bucks have a high occurrence of CWD, and a high chance of spreading the disease.

“During breeding season, and during the rut, they come in contact with a lot more deer than your average deer,” Lemon said.

With the plan adopted, FWP is set to continue the work outlined in its pages, included increased surveillance across the state. The document breaks the state into five regions, with one to be surveyed each year.

“We’ve got a lot to do this year as we prepare for another big surveillance along the Hi-Line, from the east border of the Blackfeet Reservation all the way to the North Dakota border, and three hunting districts around Phillipsburg,” he said.

“We’re working hard to get our plans in place, and let the public know we’re going to be up there getting samples of all the hunter-harvested deer, elk and moose that we possibly can.”