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Stemming the tide: Managing chronic wasting disease in the Greater Yellowstone

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Part 2: How hunting plays a role in CWD management

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

As the deadly wildlife disease known as chronic wasting disease, or CWD, spreads into Montana, EBS is looking closely at what that means for the Greater Yellowstone Region and how wildlife managers will respond. This is the second in a series about CWD in Montana.

LIVINGSTON – As March ushers in the warmer temps and melting snow of spring, deer and elk hunters are already applying for special fall-season permits, which are due April 1. A growing consideration is how chronic wasting disease, a fatal infection found for the first time in Montana’s wild deer herds in 2017, will change things for the future.

CWD first emerged in Colorado in 1967, and has since spread to 24 states and two Canadian provinces. Caused by a prion that can be passed through saliva, urine, feces and blood, the so-called “zombie deer disease” breaks down brain and spinal tissue, resulting in weight loss, incoordination, drowsiness and death over a period of roughly two years. Deer, elk, moose and caribou are susceptible to it, and some Wyoming, managers are starting to see population-level impacts.

Wildlife disease specialist Hank Edwards is seeing a decrease in survival as well as a decrease in the number of older bucks in some highly-infected herds. Edwards is the supervisor of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Health Laboratory.

The disease infects as many as 50 percent of the animals in some herds, while in others, it stays around 30, 10 or even 5 percent. “I think every herd responds to CWD differently,” Edwards said. “We [don’t yet] understand why some herds are more resilient.”

What we do know is that CWD can remain in the environment for years at a time.

“It’s a little scary,” said Jeff Heppner, a sportsman and taxidermist in Helena. “It’s something we should all be paying attention to.” Heppner owns Big Sky Taxidermy, formerly based in Belgrade, and says since CWD emerged in Montana in 2017, he’s closely followed regulations and how it has spread.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has routinely surveyed high-risk populations on the Wyoming and Canadian borders since the ’90s, and when a positive test came back from the lab three years ago, they ramped up surveillance efforts.

A microscopic look at lymph nodes—which can only be obtained from a deceased animal—is the only way to confirm CWD, and in recent years, FWP has given sampling kits to Heppner and other taxidermists, so they can provide agency biologists with tissue from animals their clients harvested in high-risk or CWD-positive areas. Heppner doesn’t receive many animals from these areas, but he says knowing CWD is out there on the landscape—and the fact we don’t know if it can infect humans—is a serious reminder to follow sanitation practices like using gloves.

Even with these concerns, Heppner says he’d still hunt in areas where CWD has been found but hasn’t yet negatively impacted the deer population. Heppner, like many, wonders how CWD will change the future of hunting.

In Wyoming, even in herds with high infection rates, the state hasn’t seen a drop in the number of annual hunting licenses purchased. This is important for management, said Edwards of the Wyoming Wildlife Health Lab, because some data suggests carefully managed hunter harvest could reduce the disease’s spread.

Managers from other states agree that stakeholder involvement is key. In addition to hunters, that means landowners and conservationists, says Kelly Straka, the supervisor of the wildlife health section of Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Straka has watched CWD take hold in Michigan, as well as her home state of Minnesota, and in Missouri, where she helped create the Missouri Department of Conservation’s first wildlife health program.

“We cannot do it on our own,” Strika said, speaking as a wildlife manager during a 2018 panel discussion on CWD held in Bozeman. “We are all accountable, I don’t care if you’re a deer farmer, you’re a hunter, you’re a wildlife watcher. What can we do to make sure we don’t make things worse?”

Strika stressed that managers need to think long term. “This is an ultramarathon. This is something that we are in for the long haul, and management has to stop being so reactive.”

Wyoming Game and Fish and MT FWP are currently revising their CWD management plans. These state documents will be considered by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on March 19-20, and in Montana on April 23. The draft documents will be made available for public review before final adoption and will address CWD surveillance efforts, management goals, and tools for reducing the spread of CWD.

Read the next edition of EBS to learn more about CWD in the Greater Yellowstone. Visit explorebigsky.com/stemming-the-tide/33159 to read the first installment in this series.

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