Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 7 staff met with its Citizens Advisory Council on Jan. 15, updating members on agency activities and gathering their input on various topics. Seven of the 10 volunteer members attended the annual winter gathering at the FWP regional headquarters in Miles City.
Chronic Wasting Disease
Chronic Wasting Disease was one of the main topics, since the first cases were detected in Southeastern Montana in 2019.
During the general hunting season, portions of FWP Region 7 were high-priority surveillance areas for CWD, based on proximity to known positives in surrounding states. Region 7 hired eight technicians and collected samples at check stations in Ashland, Hysham and Ekalaka and at the Miles City office.
Summing up the efforts, Wildlife Manager John Ensign said, “It was a bit consuming, involving wardens, biologists, front-office staff – basically everyone.”
Despite increased demands, Ensign felt the process worked surprisingly well, and the region was probably fortunate to find just six positive deer.
Those positives were a white-tailed buck in HD 705 in Powder River County, a mule deer buck in HD 704 in Powder River County, a white-tailed buck in HD 702 in Rosebud County, a mule deer buck 60 miles north of Miles City in HD 701 in Prairie County, a white-tailed buck two miles north of Hysham in HD 701, and a white-tailed doe taken near Decker in HD 704.
Statewide, FWP collected more than 7,000 samples from deer, elk and moose, of which 132 were positive.
“It’s bigger than people ever thought it would be in terms of numbers,” said Citizens Advisory Council Member Ed Bukoskey, who also sits on a CWD citizens group.
“We offered free testing to anybody, and I’m glad we did,” Ensign said.
CAC member Ed Joiner said many hunters appreciated that service, which was funded through federal grants.
Region 7 fell just short of collecting enough mule deer samples in high-priority surveillance areas to predict with 95 percent confidence whether CWD prevalence is greater than 1 percent, so sampling will continue next year in the region. FWP’s management goal is to keep herds below 5 percent prevalence and prevent further spread of the disease.
“I don’t think the prevalence down here is going to be all that high,” Ensign said.
Liberal regionwide harvest quotas and public hunting in Region 7 may help to curb the slow-moving disease.
CAC member Dale Kreiman asked if there is a way to speed testing results, which take about three weeks. Ensign said it may take legislation to boost capacity. Right now a Colorado State University lab handles results, but FWP is looking into ways to conduct in-state testing.
Kreiman also questioned whether a big jump in CWD cases could affect people’s desire to hunt. Ensign said this season’s poor weather probably discouraged more hunters than CWD did. He also noted that the first special hunt licenses issued where CWD was found sold out quickly. But only time will tell, he said.
Regional Supervisor Brad Schmitz said the focus right now is on education.
“People are going to have to manage a little more how they process their critters,” Schmitz said.
That includes disposing of carcasses properly, learning to bone out animals and collect lymph nodes for testing, and separating meat from different animals until test results come back.
There have been no cases of CWD transmitting to humans, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against eating meat from animals that have tested positive.
Antelope study in works
Ensign also outlined a five-year, statewide antelope study that will include two study areas in Region 7 to determine why populations have recovered better in some areas than in others.
He noted a bluetongue outbreak in 2007-08 that impacted antelope herds, followed by some tough winters. As conditions improved, populations in the southeast portion have recovered, but numbers in the northwest have lagged behind. Beginning this winter, FWP will capture and collar 60 does in both the southern Garfield County/northern Rosebud County area and the southern Carter County/eastern Powder River County area. They will be tested for pregnancy and disease, and biologists will track their movements and try to determine causes of mortality.
Good fishing in prairie ponds for 2020
Regional Fisheries Manager Mike Backes updated the CAC on prairie ponds, work at Intake Fishing Access Site, and monitoring of native fish species.
Based on water levels in prairie ponds from last spring, Backes predicts very good fishing in 2020.
“It’s about as good a situation as we’ve had with spring runoff,” he said.
Backes reported 89 stockings of fish in 77 ponds in 2019, compared to 65 stockings in 2018. There were 15 wild fish transfers into eight ponds, compared to just two transfers the year before. He also noted improvements at popular sites, including a new, handicap-accessible fishing pier at East Rosebud Fishing Access Site, new boat ramps slated for Elk Island and Fallon Bridge FAS, and a 45-foot fishing pier planned for renovated Baker Lake.
A federal project to construct a new diversion dam and fish passage at Intake Fishing Access Site near Glendive is under way, Backes said. The large side channel that will allow passage around the dam for endangered pallid sturgeon, paddlefish and other species to spawn upstream is half excavated. FWP is just wrapping up a four-year native species study of pallid and shovelnose sturgeon, paddlefish, sauger and blue suckers, which will provide a baseline to compare fish movements after the bypass is completed in 2022.
Backes has been monitoring migrations of several telemetered pallid sturgeons upstream of Intake. Some are using an existing side channel in high-water years, while others have been translocated over the dam. Some pallids are traveling more than 90 river miles up the Yellowstone River to its confluence with the Powder River and beyond, and he expects that behavior will only increase once the fish bypass is complete.
“These movements are of great importance because they show the ability to spawn and reproduce in the wild,” he said.
On the paddlefish front, Backes sees conditions shaping up for a fast and successful season if river flows are adequate this spring. That could change after the bypass is completed, however, because the fish will no longer concentrate below the dam.
No proposal prompting bison EIS release
Supervisor Schmitz outlined FWP’s recent release of the final environmental impact statement on bison conservation and management in Montana.
He said this action is not connected to any current proposal by FWP or anyone else to establish bison anywhere in the state.
“We as an agency are not moving forward as a lead entity to put a herd on the ground,” Schmitz said. “This simply puts rules and sideboards forward.”
This conversation started about 10 years ago, he said, including questions on why FWP was not managing wild bison like it does everything else. State statute places that responsibility with the agency.
Between 2010 and 2012, FWP drafted a programmatic environmental impact statement, amidst a backdrop of legislative discussions, meetings and public scoping.
Since the topic was first raised, there have been changes in governors and FWP leadership, and larger issues like Aquatic Invasive Species and Chronic Wasting Disease sidelining the bison effort.
“This now provides the opportunity for moving that concept of a free-range bison herd forward,” Schmitz said of the EIS.
However, any group wishing to do so has to go through a lengthy process involving a lot of public interaction.
“Does this mean we’re going to have a bison herd on the ground by the end of the year? In my mind, no,” he said.
CAC’s George Luther agreed, estimating that a successful proposal would take three to five years minimum, and the political landscape could change in the process.
“This has taken 10 years to get to this point,” Schmitz said. “Director [Martha] Williams’ record of decision allows the concept of bison conservation to remain a relevant topic of discussion.”
Extensive information about the bison EIS can be found on the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov.
New management for parks, new trails program
Tom Shoush, manager at Hell Creek State Park, gave an overview of the state parks system in Region 7.
Jamie Hould, a Miles City native, was recently hired as parks manager for both regions 5 and 7, and he will be based in Miles City instead of in Billings.
“It’s good to be back to where we’re able to manage those parks regionally out of Miles City, and able to have a finger on the pulse,” Shoush said.
He also noted a new trail grants program that will provide an opportunity for local communities. Montana’s light vehicle registration fee funds state parks, fishing access sites and trails. A legislative increase in the fee from $6 to $9 has created a trails and recreational facilities grant program. Local governments, school districts, community groups and state and federal agencies can apply for grants to rehabilitate existing trails or create new trails and related features including bridges, shelters, signs and restrooms.