Epizootic hemorrhagic disease cases continue to pop up across Montana, and may trigger some changes to hunting regulations this fall.
“We are considering some recommendations for north-central Montana because of the EHD die-offs in whitetail,” said Ron Aasheim, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman. “We may recommend some reductions in deer regulations for that area north of Great Falls, in Region 4.”
Biting midges spread EHD to whitetail deer, which usually die within seven to 10 days after infection. The disease often concentrates along river corridors and appears as fall weather dries out riparian areas. Infected deer often seek out water sources to cool off before dying.
Aasheim said some hunting districts between Great Falls and the Canadian border have seen upward of 50 percent mortality after the disease started showing up in August and September. The agency is considering canceling antlerless hunting opportunities in districts 400, 401, 403, 404 and 406 to compensate. The FWP Board of Commissioners would have to approve the plan at its meeting Thursday, Oct. 10.
Those districts currently offer either-sex mule and whitetail seasons. Aasheim said the whitetail populations there were over objective, but the die-off might be serious enough to prompt defensive action.
“That’s the discussion the commission will have next week,” Aasheim said. “It’s already a published regulation, so if they change it, we’ll have to do a (publicity) blitz before the general hunting season starts.”
Rifle season for deer and elk starts statewide Oct. 26, while antelope season for those with permits begins Oct. 12. Antelope have also been affected by hemorrhagic disease outbreaks in many parts of the state.
“Regions 4 and 5 have experienced a little bit of a die-off in pronghorn from bluetongue and EDH,” wildlife freelance writer Ben Lamb said from Helena. “Other than that, I’ve seen quite a few archery pronghorn bucks come through. Guys are having success with tactics like setting a blind up on a water hole or using a decoy of some kind. But I’m not seeing much coming out of regions 6 and 7, which had big die-offs in the last few years. There’s not much opportunity up there yet.”
Both EHD and bluetongue have been reported in antelope and whitetail deer in the area between Hardin and Custer in Region 5.
“It seems the disease is really widespread all over the region,” Region 5 spokesman Bob Gibson said. “But there’s no place where the whole herd is tipped over. Biologists have fielded reports of dead animals along the Yellowstone River as far upstream as Springdale, along Rock Creek as high as Boyd, along the Stillwater River to Absarokee and along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone to the Wyoming state line.”
Gibson said one troubling development is the depressed fawn counts in antelope herds throughout Region 5. Biologists have been counting an average 20 fawns per 100 adults, when the more typical ratio is 80-to-100. Preliminary research indicates the disease may be leaving some surviving adults sterile.
“That’s borne out in the check stations,” Gibson said. “We’re seeing 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, but not seeing many fawns or does coming through. The average age is getting older, and that reflects that there aren’t that many fawns being born.”
The Frenchtown area west of Missoula experienced a possible EHD die-off that affected more than 200 whitetail deer for the first time in FWP biological records. The disease has been common east of the Continental Divide but never seen in the moister territory of Region 2.
Region 2 spokeswoman Vivica Crowser said she’s still awaiting lab results to confirm EHD is the culprit, but there aren’t many other possible suspects with the same symptoms. About 25 other possible cases have been reported in the northern Bitterroot Valley, but they have not been confirmed either. So far, the die-off zone has remained between Harper’s Bridge and Erskine Fishing Access Site along the Clark Fork River.