Chronic wasting disease has not yet been discovered in Montana’s wild populations of deer, elk and moose, but as the disease continues to expand to the north, south and east of the state, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park officials believe it is only a matter of time before it is in Montana.
This fall, FWP is ramping up its CWD surveillance program again with financial help from the Mule Deer Foundation and The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
FWP’s surveillance plan calls for rotating surveillance efforts amongst three priority areas of the state: south central, south east and north central/east. This year’s focus will be on the south-central priority area.
Surveillance efforts will primarily consist of collecting samples from hunter harvested deer at game check stations and cooperating meat processors and taxidermists.
The Mule Deer Foundation donated $5,000 and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation donated up to $10,000 toward this year’s effort.
“We know the best thing we can do is increase our surveillance efforts and help from our partners is critical. The Mule Deer Foundation and RMEF both recognize the importance of doing all we can to find CWD early, if it’s here,” said FWP Game Management Bureau Chief John Vore. “Our best chance of containing the disease once it is detected will be finding it early.”
Additionally, FWP is asking people who get salvage permits for roadkill deer in specific counties to voluntarily submit their heads for testing. Those counties are: Sheridan, Treasure, Daniels, Valley, Toole, Phillips, Liberty, Blaine, Hill, Custer, Rosebud, Musselshell, Golden Valley, Yellowstone, Carter, Sweet Grass, Park, Stillwater, Big Horn, Powder River, Carbon, Granite, and Roosevelt.
CWD is a progressive, fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose. It is part of a group of diseases called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). TSEs are caused by infectious, mis-folded prion proteins, which cause normal prion proteins throughout a healthy animal’s body to mis-fold, resulting in organ damage and eventual death.
Though there is no evidence CWD is transmissible to humans, it is recommended to never ingest meat from animals that appear to be sick or are known to be CWD positive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hunters who have harvested a deer, elk, or moose from a known CWD infected area to have the animal tested prior to consuming it. If hunters harvest an animal that appears to be sick, the best thing to do is contact FWP and have the animal inspected.
FWP started testing for CWD in 1998 and has compiled more than 17,000 postmortem samples from free-ranging deer, elk and moose – all of which were negative. There is no non-invasive, reliable test for live animals. Unfortunately, federal funding for testing was cut back in 2012, so the agency now limits sampling to high-risk areas or symptomatic animals.
FWP will be focusing their surveillance efforts on mule deer, which transmit CWD more effectively than elk, moose, and whitetails. The first priority is symptomatic animals, followed by road-killed animals, whose symptoms may have contributed to their deaths. After that, the recommendation is to test seemingly healthy hunter-harvested adult bucks and does. Among mule deer, bucks are twice as likely as does to test positive for CWD.
The only documented cases of CWD in Montana were in captive elk at a game farm in Philipsburg in 1999; however, CWD has been detected in free-ranging populations in 21 other states and two Canadian provinces – some very near the border with Montana. In fact, it has been detected in all of the states or provinces with which Montana shares a border, except for Idaho and British Columbia.
In other parts of the country, wildlife management agencies have dealt with CWD for years. In Wyoming and Colorado, officials are beginning to see population declines in infected mule deer and whitetail herds due to the high prevalence of the disease.
One of the challenges with CWD is that prions remain infectious for a long time in both animals and in the environment. So as more animals become infected, the environment they inhabit becomes more infected, making control much more difficult.
As always, landowners, hunters and the public are encouraged to report animals they see in the wild that appear sick to their nearest FWP personnel. Animals exhibiting clinical symptoms of CWD are often emaciated, drooling, disoriented with an abnormal gait, and have their head and ears hung low.
Some tools are already in place to prevent the disease in Montana, such as a ban on full carcasses or certain carcass parts being brought into the state from areas with CWD, and a ban on feeding deer, which causes them to congregate. The state does not relocate cervids from one area to another, nor does it rehabilitate and release them back into the wild due to concerns over CWD. Game farm animals are classified as alternative livestock.