By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – After chronic wasting disease was found this fall in five mule deer and one whitetail deer in south-central Montana, state wildlife officials have authorized a special management hunt south of Billings that began Dec. 15 with more than 100 deer harvested in the first weekend.
CWD is a progressive, fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose. The disease was found in Montana for the first time this fall after more than 1,000 samples were taken from harvested deer, elk and moose as a part of a special surveillance effort due to the disease’s presence in Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“It’s not only a problem, it’s a huge problem,” said Bob Gibson, Region 5 information and education manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “It’s always fatal. It’s a real slow-moving disease geographically … but it’s persistent.” The disease is caused by a prion—or an infectious protein—which is believed to remain in the soil for years.
As one of the first steps in managing the outbreak, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a management harvest known as the Bridger Special Chronic Wasting Disease Hunt. Officials believe the hunt, which spans 1,200 square miles south of Laurel, will aid in determining the prevalence and distribution of CWD, which is critical information for managers as they plan for long-term disease management in the region.
“There’s really nothing we can do for each deer,” Gibson said, adding that there are no vaccines or medications. “All we can do is manage.”
Depending on the test results from the deer harvested during the surveillance hunt, officials may consider increasing hunting opportunities in order to decrease the density of deer “so there are fewer nose to nose contacts,” Gibson said, explaining that the disease is transmitted by direct contact. They might also try to limit congregation areas, perhaps by helping to fence haystacks.
In addition to the six deer found positive south of Billings, an additional mule deer buck shot about 30 miles north of Chester, near the Canadian border, tested positive for chronic wasting disease this fall. On Dec. 21, the day after EBS went to press, the commission held a conference call to authorize a special CWD hunt in district 401 on the Canadian border between Sweet Grass and Shelby.
Licenses went on sale for the special Bridger hunt on Dec. 11 at 5 a.m. online, and within three hours all 1,200 licenses had been sold. Officials have established a quota of 200 whitetail and 200 mule deer and the season will be halted or extended depending on how quickly the quotas are met. The special hunt is slated to end Feb. 15.
“There is a very high interest in this,” Gibson said. “The bulk of the people who got the tags are people who are concerned about their way of life here.”
All successful hunters are required to submit their animal for CWD sampling, either at the check station in Joliet or at the FWP Region 5 headquarters in Billings. Hunters have 72 hours from harvest to submit the animal for sampling, and test results are expected two to three weeks after they’ve been taken.
FWP has also established a transport restriction zone within Yellowstone and Carbon counties to limit the possibility of CWD-positive carcasses moving outside the general area of the hunt. Whole carcasses, heads and spinal columns are not to leave the area.
While CWD has not been shown to affect people or animals outside of the deer family, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend not consuming animals that are infected with CWD.
For more information about FWP’s response to this CWD outbreak, visit fwp.mt.gov/cwd.