Officials seek grants to fund wildlife management effort

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A big freezer would help.

A subcommittee of Libby City Council is working on a wildlife management plan that would likely include trapping and killing some of the white-tailed deer that roam the city and are considered a nuisance by many.

Sampling by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has found a comparatively high incidence of chronic wasting disease among deer within Libby’s urban environs.

Tissue sampling and related analysis suggest that the progressive, fatal neurological disease — which affects white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose — is more concentrated within the city than in a Chronic Wasting Disease Management Zone that encompasses a roughly 10-mile radius of the city.

FWP does not manage wildlife in the city but a regional game warden and a wildlife biologist have pledged to help Libby develop a wildlife management plan.

On Feb. 5, the council’s Wildlife Management Plan subcommittee, which includes councilors Hugh Taylor, Gary Beach and Rob Dufficy, met at City Hall with State Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, to talk about the potential for state and federal support for a wildlife plan.

“One of the things we are going to need to make this work is a freezer,” Gunderson said.

Cold storage could help ensure that deer meat from a carcass cleared of being infected by CWD could go to hungry families in the region, he said.

Beach said he has heard both support and opposition in the community for a city-sanctioned program to cull deer. He believes support would grow if people felt assured that venison would not go wasted.

The freezer would store the deer carcasses until tissue samples could be tested for CWD, a process that has taken roughly two weeks. The deer that test negative could be donated to the food bank.

Dufficy and Gunderson repeatedly emphasized that Libby’s taxpayers should not bear the costs of dealing with deer — costs that could include paying someone to trap, kill and gut the deer, freezer storage and testing of tissue samples.

Gunderson said he has had conversations with the office of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana. He said he believes there is grant funding available to cover expenses tied to managing deer in the city.

“It can be done. It has to be done,” he said.

Katie Schoettler, a spokeswoman for Daines’ office, said the senator “wants to help in any way he can, and we are working with Rep. Gunderson to find potential federal programs that can aid state and local officials.”

Members of the subcommittee have emphasized that the management plan would focus on culling deer in the city, not eradicating them.

No one seems to have a reliable estimate of how many deer regularly spend time in the city and immediate vicinity. FWP has simply said there are “a lot” of deer that are urban denizens.

This lack of even a ballpark count has been frustrating for subcommittee members.

Beach wondered at the meeting whether game cameras could help provide an estimate.

One challenge in counting the deer is that they are transient and move into and out of the county. Wildlife sometimes lingers in urban environments because of ready access to food sources and comparative safety from predators.

CWD, which seems to spread primarily through contact among animals in the deer family, spreads more easily where the cervids are densely concentrated.

A sampling of 150 white-tailed deer from the Libby urban area determined that 20 of the animals tested positive for CWD. Analysis of this random sample suggests that roughly 13 of 100 deer in the urban area are likely suffering from CWD, FWP officials said.

FWP and others have reported that there have been no documented cases of the disease affecting livestock or pets or animals not in the deer family. Similarly, there has been no confirmed case of the disease being transmitted to humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, officials with the Centers for Disease Control advised that “hunters should avoid eating meat from deer and elk that look sick or test positive for CWD.”

City residents have complained also about pesky wild turkeys that hang out in Libby. The council’s wildlife subcommittee decided during a recent meeting to focus their attention for now on deer, partly because of the CWD problem.

The subcommittee plans to meet with county commissioners to get their input once the city’s wildlife plan is more complete. And once a draft plan has been prepared there will be opportunities for public comment.

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