By Johnathan Hettinger

Montana Free Press 

The prevalence of chronic wasting disease in Montana has created “a new reality” for hunters and wildlife managers, just two years after it was first detected in the state.

An extensive program of testing deer, elk, and moose harvested across Montana from April 1 to Jan. 29, 2019, turned up 142 positives from Libby to the Hi-Line to the Ruby Valley to southeastern Montana, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said. The positives included 86 white-tailed deer, 53 mule deer, two moose, and one elk. Additionally, the Montana Department of Livestock announced earlier this month that an elk on a game farm in eastern Montana has tested positive for the disease, leading to a quarantine of the facility.

State wildlife officials had expected the slow-moving disease to gradually spread across the state, southward from Canada and northward from Wyoming, both of which have infected animals. But statewide testing showed the disease is already present far from those borders.

“It’s now the new reality in Montana,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “It’s showing up all over. A deer [that tested positive] was 50 miles north of Miles City — that’s a long way north from either Wyoming or south from the Canadian provinces. It could just be about everywhere.”

For wildlife managers, the high number and wide dispersal of positive results in 2019 demonstrates that the neurodegenerative disease, which affects cervids and is always fatal, has likely been on the landscape for a while. 

“We’ve got it showing up in places that surprised us,” said Ken McDonald, wildlife bureau chief for FWP, in a Jan. 16 meeting of the interim Environmental Quality Council. “We need to assume it’s more widely distributed than we expected or modeled.” 

‘REALLY RAMPING UP’

In 2018, FWP tested 1,922 samples for CWD. In 2019, the state tested 6,977 samples. About 60 percent of those tests were conducted in priority sampling areas, including the Hi-Line, the southeastern corner of the state, and Libby. Priority sampling areas are locations FWP has determined to be at highest risk of hosting wildlife infected through the natural spread of CWD.

142 animals tested positive for CWD thus far during 2019/20 sampling

“It’s really ramping up, in terms of geography [and] species affected,” said Pat Byorth, a member of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. 

Byorth expressed concern that the presence of CWD on the landscape could affect hunters’ willingness to hunt in areas where the disease is more prevalent. Public hunting is FWP’s primary strategy for managing cervid populations. 

CWD was newly detected in 12 Montana hunting districts in 2019. Twenty-eight of Montana’s 165 hunting districts have produced a positive test since 2017. In some CWD-positive areas, the state sponsors special hunts to help combat the spread of the disease and generate more sampling opportunities. After a deer tested positive in Libby in 2019, the state established a CWD Management Zone, and testing determined that 13 percent of white-tailed deer within the city were CWD-positive.

FWP check stations throughout the state are responsible for the majority of the testing, but more than 1,000 of the samples collected in 2019 were submitted by hunters who wanted to know if their kills were infected. 

The majority of tests statewide have been performed on healthy, hunter-harvested animals that show no symptoms of the disease, according to Dr. Emily Almberg, a disease ecologist with FWP.

In addition to hunters, food banks that receive harvested meat and individuals who harvest roadkill are also encouraged to test their animals.

CWD can spread throughout the brain before causing any symptoms. Eventually, infected animals begin to look emaciated, lose muscle coordination, and display excessive salivation.

The disease has never been transferred to humans, but the Centers for Disease Control advises testing animals before consumption, and recommends against eating infected animals.

In areas where CWD is known to be present and in priority sampling areas, hunters are required to get their animals tested and there are restrictions on carcass movement. Hunters who shoot a positive deer are allowed to get a new tag.

Martha Williams, director of Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the Environmental Quality Council the disease has so far had no discernible effect on the sale of hunting licenses, and that special hunts to help combat the disease’s spread have sold out quickly.  

‘CHANGING HUNTING IN MONTANA’

FWP is reviewing how to move forward after 2019, and is looking at changes — possibly including heightened harvest allowances, special hunts, and increased testing — in regions four, five and six in central Montana, said Greg Lemon, a spokesman for the agency. 

“What we still have yet to do is sit down with the internal action team, the citizen advisory committee, and go through what we learned, talk about what we need to do and [what] we can do as far as strategies moving forward,” Lemon said.

With the disease spreading, the Montana Wildlife Federation is asking hunters to sign its CWD pledge to use gloves while field dressing, properly dispose of carcasses, and report any sightings of animals acting strangely, Gevock said. 

“It is changing hunting in Montana,” he said. “But the last thing we want to see is hunters stop participating. I was told by FWP we did not see a decline in participation this year, and that’s a good thing.”

Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said that while the disease is certainly a concern for the industry, he’s seen no diminishment of client interest in hunting in Montana. He agreed that hunters need to act carefully to help prevent the disease’s spread.

“It’s a new reality, something we’re going to have to keep in the front of our minds as we go forward,” Minard said. “Within the industry, it causes us to examine our best practices.” 

FWP: LONG-TERM FUNDING NECESSARY

Between 2018 and 2019, the state increased its number of CWD field technicians more than threefold, from eight employees to 27. 

Last year, the state Legislature budgeted about $397,000 for chronic wasting disease surveillance. About 75 percent of that comes from federal Pittman-Robertson Act funds, which are generated by a tax on firearms and ammunition, and the rest comes from state hunting license fees. 

Already, FWP is approaching that total in expenditures for fiscal year 2020, which runs from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.

Since July 1, the department has spent $310,342 on chronic wasting disease programs, according to agency figures. The department also anticipates at least an additional $70,000 in testing expenditures before the end of the fiscal year, with the possibility of another $9,000 worth of testing, Lemon said. The agency will also have continued personnel costs for the program’s one full-time lab employee.

“Long-term funding is going to be necessary,” McDonald told the council. “We’ll be bumping up that request again to make sure we continue to provide those services.”

Gevock said while the testing is expensive, it’s worthwhile. 

“It’s important and we have to do it,” Gevock said.

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