We’re at the cusp of the changing of the year, as we take the 2019 calendars down and put up new 2020 calendars, full of days without appointments, trips, or deadlines cluttering up the spaces. That changes in a hurry, of course.
I won’t say that we begin a new decade. I’m one of those curmudgeons that insist that we start new decades with the year ending with a one, not a zero. 2020 is the tenth year of the decade, not the first year of the new decade. Of course, other curmudgeons could claim, with equal accuracy, you can begin a decade on any darned year you choose—to which I say, “Bah, humbug!”
Journalists often use these last, or first, columns of the year to sum up the year just completed, and that’s this week’s theme, with emphasis on Montana’s great outdoors.
As always, weather has the first and last word on our outdoor experiences here in Montana. From that standpoint, 2019 was a nasty year. We started the year with a lot of snow and cold. It was a winter that tested the quality of wildlife habitat, as four-legged and winged critters struggled to survive in the deep snows. Of course, from the standpoint of winter sports, it was great. I enjoyed some great skiing days in February and March.
Winter gradually gave way to spring and summer, though it was hard to tell at times, especially on June 21, the Sumer Solstice, when Kiri, my black Labrador retriever, and I huddled under a tree on the edge of the Big Hole River waiting for a snow squall to subside, happy that I wasn’t on one of the drift boats sailing by.
Winter returned early, with major snowstorms in late September, early October, and, again, in late October, with subzero temps making life miserable for a lot of people in elk camps across western Montana.
The other side of the coin was that late winter storms and a relatively chilly summer helped area rivers maintain healthy flows through the summer months and there were relatively few fishing closures.
If Old Man Winter went a little crazy in Montana in 2019, one of the year’s biggest stories wasn’t the weather. It wasn’t a bacteria or a virus. It’s something that a non-scientist, not to mention lots of scientists, would have trouble wrapping their heads around. It’s a misfolded protein, of all things, called a prion. But that misfolded protein is the culprit in the growing threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD).
CWD was first found in wild cervids (deer, elk, and moose) in 2017 in south central and north central areas of Montana. That term, wild, is significant. Over 20 years ago, a captive elk herd in the Phlipsburg area was found to be infected with CWD, and was destroyed. The 2017 discovery of CWD among wild deer was a serious wake-up call to wildlife managers, hunters, and anyone concerned with wildlife.
Since then, another CWD hotbed was found in the Libby area in northwest Montana. This year, CWD-infected elk and moose have also been found. If we felt some sense of security here in southwest Montana, the recent discovery of an infected white-tailed deer in the Sheridan area destroyed that notion.
The grim reality is that CWD is now well established in Montana and it is spreading. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, and moose are all at risk for exposure and infection. Can CWD in wild cervids spread to domestic livestock? Or bighorn sheep, mountain goats, or pronghorn? That’s what some might call known unknowns.
In any event, don’t be surprised if, regardless of where we hunt in Montana, that mandatory testing of all hunter-harvested cervids will become a new reality in the next few years.
Despite bad weather and chronic wasting disease, I’m grateful for another year of being able to fish and hunt in Montana.
Good lord willing, I’m looking forward to many more days afield in 2020, though I still reserve the right to grumble about the weather.