Chronic wasting disease has Montana surrounded.
The scourge that first invaded south-central Montana after spreading across all of Wyoming is now attacking from the north. A CWD infected deer was confirmed in Libby in the spring, and a special emergency hunt that will cull the herd around town, and allow biologists to get some sense of the extent of the hot zone, is set for fall.
Six hundred extra antlerless whitetail B licenses went on sale last week. They were gone in two hours.
One theory is that wolves may be a natural, biological control over the spread of CWD by targeting the sick and weak, thinning the herd of infected animals. Someday we may have an answer to that theory, but the presence of wolves in the country surrounding Libby wasn’t enough to prevent the disease from arriving in the first place.
In the meantime, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, following the guidelines spelled out in Montana’s CWD Management Plan, is unleashing packs of two-legged wolves armed with arrows and bullets this fall. The additional 600 whitetail will all be hunted in the Libby CWD Management Zone, an area that runs about 10 miles around Libby.
The B licenses can be used in both the archery-only season, Sept. 7-Oct. 20, and the general hunting season from Oct. 26-Dec. 1. The B licenses can also be used during the youth-only season, Oct. 17-18.
Hunters who kill any deer, elk or moose in the Management Zone are required to have their game checked and sampled for CWD testing within three days. Archery hunters will have to have their game checked at the FWP office in Libby. Once the general season opens, hunters can have their animals checked at a new sampling station that will be on Highway 2 at mile marker 35, or at the Canoe Gulch Check Station.
Hunters who bone out or quarter their game need to save the head to submit for sampling.
All this may foreshadow a new normal for big game hunters in Montana. There’s only one example, from New York state, where a CWD outbreak was contained, and apparently eliminated. In all other instances the detection of CWD was followed by the spread of the disease out from the initial detection site. The disease first hit mule deer in Wyoming in 1985 and in the next three decades it worked its way north. In 2017, CWD showed up in Montana deer along the border south of Billings.
We can expect, and should plan for, the eventual spread of CWD across all of Montana. That means testing game before eating, and if the test comes back positive, disposing of the carcass and tainted meat in a way that doesn’t lead to the further spread of the disease. You can’t just dump the remains anywhere as CWD is a disease caused by malformed proteins called prions. These prions are found in the carcass or in urine and can persist in the soil for years.
There is no vaccine or treatment for CWD and the infection is always fatal.
Once unleashed on a population CWD spreads rapidly through a herd. As the prions multiply, the infected animal slowly grows weaker and becomes susceptible to predators, other diseases, or vehicle collisions. In the advanced stages of the infection, emaciated animals stumble around drooling, with droopy ears, like cattle infected with Mad Cow disease. Wild deer usually don’t survive until full symptoms develop, but that first deer in Libby, protected by living in town, hung on long enough for residents to see behavior consistent with CWD.
So far there’s no evidence CWD can jump the species barrier and infect humans the way Mad Cow disease did. But that doesn’t mean we can be cavalier about eating game.
Testing for CWD is the new black.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.