by nathan oster
From the alphabet soup of diseases that have reared their ugly head to several season modifications that have been adopted by the Game and Fish Department, there’s a lot for hunters to know as they head out into the field in search of their big-game animals.
Big Horn County Game Warden Bill Robertson and Wildlife Biologist Tom Easterly, based in Greybull and Shell respectively, said the animals are out there — especially elk — and that the recent storms which brought snow to the Big Horns should help drive them out of the high country.
But the elephant in the room, for hunters who drew elk tags anyway, is the additional level of brucellosis testing that is being required this year in the elk areas 38, 39 and 40. In each of those areas, hunters who drew tags have been sent kits for collecting blood samples.
Easterly emphasized that the two positive tests reported after last year’s fall hunting season showed only that the critters had been exposed to the virus — and not that they were carrying the disease, which of course is a major concern for area livestock producers.
All elk hunters are asked to help with the surveillance effort by not only collecting the blood samples, but by ensuring those samples don’t get too hot or too cold and are sent into the state or dropped off at a G&F collection point.
“We’ll have coolers and signs at a lot of main roads, and we’ll be flooding the area with lots of personnel on the weekends and early in the seasons,” said Easterly.
Easterly said that the positive tests prompted the G&F to make changes to the elk hunting seasons in the Big Horns.
“We were asked to create as much opportunity to harvest elk as we could,” said Easterly. “That’s why we have set Oct. 1 as a start date for some cow hunting seasons. The bull hunters don’t like it; they don’t think they’ll have the element of surprise on their side if people have been out hunting.
“But those are the elk we need to get tissues from,” noted Robertson.
Easterly said all agencies want to collect as much information as they can about the extent of the brucellosis exposure because this area is presently outside the designated brucellosis watch area. If the results show that it’s a problem, that area may have to be extended.
“They’ll look at three years worth of data, at a minimum,” said Easterly. “If just one case had been found, a case could have been made it was a coincidence. But to have two…it suggests there may be something going on.”
One good sign, he said, is that the calf population doesn’t seem to have been impacted. That’s telling because brucellosis, be it in cattle or elk, brings a rise in aborted fetuses.
Both Easterly and Robertson emphasized that elk with brucellosis pose no health risk to humans, and that this time of the year, it’s not a concern because the bacteria is dormant. “It’s not until later in the pregnancy from February on, that it starts to flare up and it can become an issue,” said Easterly. “That’s why we don’t have seasons that go past February.”
Easterly said 500 cow licenses were made available this year in area 38. Far fewer — 100 in one area, 75 in the other — were made available in areas 39 and 40, in part “to alleviate the concerns of bull hunters.”
In addition to brucellosis, hunters also need to be aware of CWD, chronic wasting disease, as well as EHD, epizootic hemorrhagic disease.
While brucellosis surveillance is the top priority, G&F officials still plan to man check stations and collect samples to test for CWD. “Not as big of a deal now as it was before, especially since we’ve found some deer with it in the area,” Easterly said. “But we’re still going to be collecting samples.”
Nothing can be done about the EHD problem, however. It is a disease that mostly impacts whitetail deer, but antelope can also be struck down by it. There have been reports of dead deer and antelope being found not only around the Big Horn Basin, but statewide.
“Last year, it hit the Black Hills pretty hard,” said Easterly.
Deer and antelope pick up EHD from gnats, which carry the virus. Once the animal has been bitten, the virus spreads. Once again, humans need not worry; EHD affects only the animal that carries it and cannot be spread to humans by consumption.
“There’s not a lot that can be done,” said Easterly. “We do know about it. Enough samples have been sent in. We know conclusively that it’s here. We haven’t found the virus yet that causes bluetongue in domestic sheep. All our indications are that this isn’t bluetongue. But since it’s been in the area, and could flare up at any time, producers need to be aware that (EHD) is here.
“The threat will go away with a hard freeze. Gnats will be less active and animals won’t be getting bit as much.”
Animals with EHD hemorrhage internally and bleed to death, said Easterly. “They get feverish and usually try to get close to a water sources; that’s why we usually find them by rivers and irrigation ditches.”
Both Easterly and Robertson said night surveys suggest that there are still plenty of whitetails out there for hunters to harvest. “It hasn’t impacted the population enough where we are going to change the hunting seasons at the last minute,” said Robertson. “But hunters may see fewer of the animals out there.”
Game officials said that when it comes to specific season information, hunters are always best served by consulting the regulations, which are available at licensing agents throughout the county.
In some cases, hunt areas have been combined. One example would be the elk area formerly known as area 42; it has been eliminated, through incorporation into a new area 41. “There’s no longer a boundary issue there,” said Robertson.
“Similarly,” added Easterly, “A couple of deer areas have been combined.”
In other areas the G&F has lengthened or shortened seasons, increased or decreased tag types, to address concerns such as crop depredation. While deer numbers are down, crop depredation, if anything, is up. “It’s the paradox of the wild,” Robertson said.
Easterly said that while deer hunters can expect to find fewer, buck ratios have remained stable.
Elk numbers, meanwhile, are stable to increasing. “It’s still a thriving population,” said Easterly. “But there again, we have seasons in place to address that growing herd.”
Last spring the G&F held public meetings to discuss the increase in the elk population.
“For the longest time, (the management goal) had been 3,000; we were proposing to move it to 4,000,” said Easterly. “However, there was enough concern about the elk numbers still on the ranges and on private lands that the proposal didn’t go through. The population objective didn’t change and we will continue to manage for 3,000 in the Medicine Lodge herd unit.”
Added Robertson, “One way to increase the harvest in the herd unit is to attempt to get hunters onto private land. Last year our Spanish Point hunt management unit was successful enough we were able to continue it this year and expand it to include two other landowners.
“Those areas open with the beginning of the late cow season on Nov. 23. Permission slips and maps are available through the Game and Fish webpage.”
Good news for bird hunters.
Pheasant numbers are good, according to both Robertson and Easterly, and two research projects on sage grouse in the Big Horn Basin reported average to good nesting success for sage grouse, which they both feel should translate over to good success for Hungarian and chuckar partridge as well as turkeys.
The turkey population in the area is doing so well, Easterly said, that there was a proposal in the spring to change the Big Horn Basin and the entire state to general license seasons, meaning hunters could buy them over the counter.
“We had mixed input on that,” said Easterly. “Some were against it, some were looking forward to it. We’ll be taking public comment on it again this spring. (If approved) it would likely mean we’d do away with the fall hunting season we have had the last several years.
“So this may be the last fall season we have in the Big Horn Basin for a while.”