Both deer and elk rifle hunting seasons opened across the state Saturday and hunters hiked into the woods at the crack of dawn in the hopes of coming out with some fresh meat to stock their freezers. That ritual was a little different this year for hunters in the Libby area, where chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been detected in white-tailed deer.
Beau Albright and his girlfriend are getting ready for their second hunt of the day on Brush Mountain southeast of Libby.
With a fresh coating of snow on the ground and hunting tags for white-tails and elk in their pockets, they quietly hike along an old logging road until they come across some tracks.
They decide to follow them into the woods and eventually down a steep ravine.
When the hillside gets too steep, Albright stops, slings his gun off his shoulder and waits. After 20 or so minutes pass with no sign of any deer or elk, he gives a hand signal to head back to the truck.
Albright lives in Kalispell, but he’s been hunting in the Libby area for nearly 20 years. He’s an active member of the Northern Rockies chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation.
Chronic wasting disease has been detected in deer and elk herds in portions of north and southeastern Montana, but no detections were made anywhere near Libby until this year. So, it was a surprise when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) announced the disease’s presence this spring. So far, detections have only been made within the city limits of Libby. That gives hunters like Albright hope.
If the disease spreads, it could decimate herd numbers.
“We’ll see what happens. If the deer in town happen just happen to live there year-round, it could be a case for keeping it contained,” Albright said.
Albright came up empty handed for the day, but hunters that successfully harvest a deer, elk or moose within 10 miles of Libby are required to bring the head or lymph nodes of their animal to CWD check stations.
FWP Region 1 Wildlife Program Manager Neil Anderson and other department staff are taking those samples at a station along Highway 2 outside of town.
“We want a good representative sample from all around this area, and so they’ve been coming in from all directions,” Anderson said.
FWP says just over 30 white-tailed deer came through Libby check stations for sampling over the weekend. The goal is to collect 200 hunter-harvested samples within the CWD management zone to understand the disease’s prevalence. FWP hopes to trap the same number of animals in town later this winter.
“And that’ll give us a better idea what prevalence is, more or less right in town,” Anderson said.
High deer densities are conducive to the spread of CWD through feces, urine and deer-to-deer contact. Though deer can look reasonably healthy during the two years it can take for CWD to kill them.
With 20 detections in Libby, it’s possible the disease’s prevalence in town could well exceed the 5-percent threshold that triggers the more aggressive responses in FWP’s management plan. Most management tools in the plan call for reducing deer densities in order to meet that goal.
It’s a new approach many western states are taking because evidence shows the disease spreads exponentially faster once prevalence hits 20 percent. That’s also when CWD begins to reduce herd numbers.
Libby resident Al Randal says he’s concerned about high abundances in the urban population and says he’s seeing signs of CWD in town.
“When you see a sick deer, you know it’s a sick deer – heads hanging, they look terrible, no energy,” Randal said.
That and the detections in town drove many like Randal to hunt outside of the CWD management zone, but he and many others are coming to this station to take advantage of FWP’s free CWD testing services. Even though there’s no evidence that humans can contract CWD, officials advise getting animals in CWD positive areas tested before consuming the meat.
A number of hunters in Libby support how FWP is handling the detections. Locals like James Woody say the presence of the disease isn’t going to change their hunting practices that much.
“Not really. My kid’s first year hunting. We weren’t going to pass that up. Ten-year-old shot his first buck. Wasn’t going to skip it because the wasting disease is around. We’re waiting on his results,” Woody said.
It takes two to three weeks for FWP to get CWD test results back to hunters. It’ll be early next year before FWP gets an idea of CWD’s prevalence in and around Libby, and that number will guide FWP’s management actions into the future.