Montana deer die-off leads to reduced hunting plan

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has given initial approval to limitations on the number of mule deer and white-tailed deer hunters will be able to kill following a die-off that has reduced populations.

The agency on Thursday approved the plan to allow hunting only mature male mule deer throughout Montana, and only male white-tailed deer in three eastern Montana regions.

The agency would eliminate “B” tags that allow hunters to kill deer without antlers, which are usually females. About 30,000 such tags were issued last year.

Public comments on the plan are being accepted, and the agency will likely make a decision in February.

Officials say deer populations have been hit hard by an outbreak earlier this year of epizootic hemorrhagic disease and bluetongue. Both diseases are transmitted to deer by sandmites.

“Usually you see 150 mule deer in my field,” Commissioner Richard Stuker of Conrad said. “This year, we’re leaving the gate open in my hay fields, and we haven’t seen a single one.”

Some members of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association have refunded fees to clients because of a lack of deer to hunt.

“B tag holders took 10,000 white-tailed does in 2012,” said Mary Ellen Schnur, a representative of the group. “That’s a lot of deer. It’s time to look at this and be supportive of this proposal.”

Sportsmen’s groups generally approved of the move but were also concerned about the decision being based on anecdotal evidence.

“I worry about the broad paintbrush a little bit,” said Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance spokesman Vito Quatraro. “Are there regions where they do have good deer populations? This handles the hunting variable, but it also involves habitat and climate change. What else are we going to do if populations don’t come back?”

State biologists are planning to conduct population surveys this winter.

“This is a bold decision to make,” said Commission chairman Dan Vermillion about the proposal to limit hunting. “But we’re all coming at this with the same objective — to keeping mule deer. I personally feel there’s no question that deer populations have changed and not in the direction of abundance.”

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