Although first detected in the state last year, the potential impacts of chronic wasting disease on big game herds and the future of hunting in Montana escalated this year as the number of animals testing positive continues to grow.
Chronic wasting disease, or CWD as it’s commonly called, is a fatal and incurable neurological disease that affects deer, elk moose and caribou. Transmitted from animal to animal, it may take decades to gain a foothold but once it does, biologists have documented major herd declines among both mule and whitetail deer.
While a danger to humans has not been shown, health officials do not advise eating a CWD-infected animal and recommend that hunters have their big game animals tested if harvested from a CWD-positive area.
State wildlife officials had suspected CWD would come to Montana as in recent years it crept closer in neighboring states and provinces. Then in 2017, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks detected three diseased deer – two south of Billings and one from the Hi-Line – taken during hunting season. Hunts and testing of road-killed animals followed, leading to another 11 positive tests.
Going into the 2018 big game hunting season knowing the disease was out there, officials continued the testing program. To date, another 26 deer have tested positive for CWD with 21 from the Hi-Line and five from south of Billings.
As biologists learn more about the disease and how widespread it is in Montana, they are already taking steps to continue increased testing and looking at how hunting regulations can be adjusted to address it. Fortunately, CWD is slow moving, meaning officials have time. Carbon County for example has an estimated prevalence of 2 percent of deer infected with CWD. That’s far from other states that see rates as high as 40 percent.
And Montana may be in a better position to keep CWD at lower rates than some other states. Biologists testified earlier this month that the state’s tradition of mostly managing for hunter opportunity rather than older trophy animals is already believed to be the best strategy, particularly for mule deer which are perhaps the most susceptible to the disease. Having caught the disease early is also a major plus that gives the state more options.
“We think we can be successful keeping CWD where it is and not spreading widely in the state,” John Vore, FWP big game management bureau chief, told the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.