Chronic Wasting Disease Expands

This urban mule deer looks kind of skinny and scruffy. She’s probably just given birth to a fawn, and has started shedding her winter coat.

We’re making a transition from spring to summer in this first week of June. It appears that spring runoff has peaked and is now tapering off, meaning that fishing should be improving, as well as the fabled salmonfly hatch on the Big Hole River should be starting in the next week or two. And that reminds me I should replace a few of the big stonefly imitations I might have lost or gotten chewed up during last year’s hatch.

While it’d be fun to just concentrate on fishing right now, chronic wasting disease (CWD) just made another unwelcome claim on our attention.

Last month, personnel from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks euthanized a whitetail deer in the Springhill area north of Bozeman. It seemed to be showing signs of CWD, and laboratory tests confirmed that the deer was infected with CWD.

Montana had been an island of sorts, surrounded by states or Canadian Provinces with CWD present among wild deer populations. Montana’s only previous CWD outbreak had been in a captive elk herd in the Philipsburg area, resulting in the elimination of that herd.

CWD was found among Montana’s wild deer in 2017, in south central areas near the Wyoming line and in north central Montana, near Alberta. Since then, a large outbreak of CWD was found among deer and even moose in the Libby area of northwestern Montana. 

If we in southwestern Montana felt we weren’t going to be affected by CWD, those thoughts were dashed last fall when a CWD-infected deer was found near Sheridan in the Ruby River valley. Now CWD is present in the Bozeman area.

Chronic wasting disease is here and in more and more parts of Montana, meaning it’s now established as a factor in our wild deer populations and it’s only going to get worse.

FWP is asking people to notify the agency if we should see possibly infected deer, elk or moose. Infected animals typically seem to have reduced mobility. They may also look emaciated or they may be drooling, have a seeming lack of muscle coordination. They may have what seems to be a wide posture, and their heads and ears may be lowered. In other words, they look sick.

Deer that just look thin or skinny probably are not infected. Deer are just starting to rebuild fat stores used up during the winter months. Also, female deer have just given birth to fawns and might look bedraggled. They’re also shedding winter coats, so they are look kind of shaggy and disreputable. FWP emphasizes that there is usually a combination of physical and behavioral symptoms present among infected deer.

If you see some deer, elk or moose that show those multiple symptoms of CWD infection, let FWP know what you’ve seen and where the critters were when you saw them. You could call a game warden or a local FWP office or, if nothing else, call 1-800-Tip-Mont to report your observations.

While hunting seasons are still months away, hunting is the department’s primary tool for gathering information and managing wildlife populations. FWP will be actively looking for information, and likely establishing further check stations for collecting tissue samples. We will also likely be seeing additional restrictions on interstate transport of deer carcasses. 

We can also expect to see incentives to increase deer harvest in areas with known CWD cases. Overpopulation of deer is a factor in the spread of CWD, so reducing deer populations is a tool. Think of it as social distancing for deer, and be happy that we don’t use such strict measures to enforce social distancing for ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sad to say, we are approaching the inevitable time when tissue sampling of all deer, elk and moose will likely be mandatory. Further, while there is, as yet, no established transmission of CWD to humans by eating venison from an infected critter, scientists are in agreement that it’s not advisable to eat that venison. 

Stay tuned. I expect that before we’re ready for the next deer/elk season, we’ll hear more about CWD.

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