Montana to ramp up testing for chronic wasting disease

Montana will beef up its efforts this hunting season to watch for a fatal wildlife disease that has been creeping closer to the state in recent years.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will be setting up specialized check stations around south central Montana to collect lymph node samples from hunter-harvested deer and elk to check for chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological condition that affects elk, deer and moose. They’re also collecting samples from road-killed animals.

FWP officials expect the disease to arrive soon, if it hasn’t already, and they want to catch it as early as possible. If they do find it, they’ll consider some sort of attempt to dull its effects and stop the spread — like a targeted hunt. A citizen advisory panel is working on the response plan, but it hasn’t been finalized yet.

“It is likely here,” said Andrea Jones, an FWP spokeswoman. “But it will help us in preventing the spread if we catch it early here.”

Chronic wasting disease is spread by small proteins called prions. Prions are easily passed between animals, and they can persist in soils and grasses for a long time. There’s no conclusive evidence that it’s harmful to humans, but health officials advise against eating meat from animals known to be infected.

The disease acts slowly. Infected animals may look malnourished and have a wide stance. FWP officials said infected animals are also more likely to be hit by cars, which is why they’re interested in sampling roadkill.

It has been detected in wild populations all over the country and in two Canadian provinces. Each state bordering Montana besides Idaho has had positive hits for the disease. Montana found the disease at a game farm near Philipsburg in the late 1990s, but it hasn’t been found in a wild population.

FWP has been testing for the disease since 1998. Federal funding for testing has been cut back in recent years, which means the testing is restricted to high priority areas. Wyoming has detected the disease within 10 miles of the Montana border, so FWP’s priority areas for this year are concentrated in south central Montana. The priority area will be different next year.

Seven sampling stations will run during each weekend of the general season near the following towns: Gardiner, Livingston, Big Timber, Lavina, Columbus, Billings and Laurel.

Biologists and volunteers will gather lymph node samples at the stations and send them to a lab at Colorado State University. Greg Lemon, an FWP spokesman, said processing the samples may take as long as three weeks.

They’ll collect samples from any animal with a chance of being infected, but they’ll be particularly interested in gathering samples from mule deer bucks. Lemon said they’re more susceptible because of the way they socialize within a herd, and a mature buck is likely to come into contact with more animals than other members of the herd.

Lemon said the effort will cost about $200,000. Some of the funding is coming from a federal grant, and additional funding is coming from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Mule Deer Foundation.

Chad Klinkenborg, the Montana regional director for the Mule Deer Foundation, said he’s happy the state is being proactive, and he hopes they’ll be ready if it’s detected.

“It’s a pretty dangerous disease that is near impossible to eradicate,” he said.

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