CWD testing, monitoring remains a priority for FWP

Chronic wasting disease has yet to be 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.

FWP started testing for CWD in 1998 and that effort continues today, with specific attention given to high priority areas in southeast and northern Montana where confirmed cases of CWD are closest to the state’s borders.

“We know it is important to continue our monitoring efforts the best we can,” said FWP Game Management Bureau Chief John Vore. “We know our greatest chance of containing the disease once it is detected will be finding it early.”

CWD testing will ramp up this year, as FWP looks to find ways to sample more deer and elk in the high priority surveillance areas. Now people participating in the salvage permit process in high risk counties will be asked to retain and turn in the heads of whitetail, mule deer and elk that are picked up. The salvage permit allows people to salvage road kill animals and must be obtained within 24 hours of picking up a road-killed animal. The permit is available online at fwp.mt.gov.

FWP is seeking heads from salvage road-killed deer and elk in the high risk couties of Sheridan, Treasure, Daniels, Valley, Toole, Phillips, Liberty, Blaine, Hill, Custer, Rosebud, Mussel Shell, Golden Valley, Yellowstone, Carter, Sweet Grass, Park, Stillwater, Big Horn, Powder River, Carbon, Granite, Roosevelt, Deer Lodge and Silver Bow.

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. Infectious, abnormal proteins called “prions” accumulate in an animal’s brain, causing a spongy appearance to the tissue visible only under a microscope.

The only documented cases of CWD in Montana were in captive animals 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 the states or provinces with which Montana shares a border, except for Idaho and British Columbia.

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. If hunters harvest an animal that appears to be sick, the best thing to do is contact FWP and have the animal inspected. 

In other parts of the country, wildlife management agencies have dealt with CWD for years. In Wyoming, officials are beginning to see population declines in infected mule deer herds due to the high prevalence of the disease.

One of the challenges with CWD is that infecting prions stay viable for a long time in both animals and in the environment. As more animals become infected, the environment they inhabit becomes more infected, making control much more difficult.

FWP 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.

Mule deer are the preferred test subject because they are the most susceptible, and bucks are twice as likely to test positive for CWD.

As always, landowners, hunters and the general public are encouraged to report animals they see in the wild that appear sick to their nearest FWP personnel. Animals exhibiting symptoms of CWD are often emaciated, drooling, disoriented with a weird gait, and have their head and ears hung low. 

Contributing heads from salvaged road-kill will greatly increase the samples that FWP collects as hundreds of these animals are picked up each year. Heads may be turned into FWP regional offices, area resource offices or by calling your local biologist or game warden.

Some tools are already in place to try to combat the disease, such as a ban on full carcasses or certain carcass parts being brought into Montana from areas with CWD, new legislation that bans cover scents produced in CWD positive states, and a ban on feeding deer, which causes them to congregate. The state also does not relocate cervids from one area to another, nor does it rehabilitate and release them back into the wild because of CWD concerns.

Additionally, FWP is updating its response plan and has enlisted the help of a citizen advisory panel. Members on the panel represent a broad interest of hunters, livestock producers and wildlife enthusiasts. The revised plan will be submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Commission for endorsement later this year.

The CWD citizen advisory panel will meet next June 20 and 21 in Miles City.

For more information on CWD in Montana, look online at fwp.mt.gov. Click on the Fish and Wildlife tab, then on Disease and Research and then Chronic Wasting Disease.

For questions about disease in wildlife, please call the FWP Wildlife Health Lab at (406) 994-6357.

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