The news on chronic wasting disease got worse this fall when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks confirmed a bull moose killed by a hunter near Troy was infected. The moose was about a half mile outside the Libby CWD management zone that was created earlier this year.
So far there have been 30 cases of CWD detected in deer living in and around Libby. Whitetails live relatively social lives as far as deer go. They hang out in herds and are comfortable living in and around humans. So it’s no surprise the first cases involved town deer.
Since the disease is spread through bodily fluids such as urine, deer concentrated in town and feeding in close proximity can readily spread the prions that cause CWD. Landscaping in town parks attracts feeding deer and that also leads to peeing and pooping, which may turn those parks into hot zones.
Those prions can also be transferred to the ground through body fluids or the carcass of an infected cervid, and can persist in the ground for years.
CWD is a neurological disease that infects deer, elk and moose. Over time it turns the brain of an infected deer into a sponge and the animals grow erratic and emaciated. Eventually, they waste away and die.
It’s similar to mad cow disease, which can be transmitted to humans who eat infected cattle. There is no evidence CWD will make that same journey across the species frontier, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing game harvested in areas where CWD is present before it is consumed.
With confirmed outbreaks in south-central Montana near Bridger and now the northeast corner of the state, as well as bordering states and Canadian provinces, testing game killed anywhere in Montana is probably a good idea.
FWP will test game meat for free if hunters send samples to the department’s lab in Bozeman or bring the head of an animal to a game check station where FWP staffers can collect a sample. Results take about three weeks.
So far the outbreak is mostly confined to Libby. Five more infected animals have been killed by hunters this fall and all but one of those were deer that lived near the city center. But an infected moose is another matter. Moose, especially bulls, are mostly loners.
This infection might be a fluke, but I worry it may actually mean the disease is more widespread than realized. I’m just speculating, but my speculation is another good reason to have your game tested even if you’re hunting far from CWD management areas.
If infections are confined to those areas, we may be able to slow its spread by aggressively managing deer. In other words, let hunters kill lots of deer where we know the disease is confined, reducing the population as much as possible. That might buy us some time.
But if testing shows the disease is more widespread we need to know that too. We need to know if CWD testing is the new normal and every hunter should just assume there will be a three-week delay between the kill and that first feast of butterflied backstrap filets.
Montana hunters may soon routinely experience the kind of agony soccer fans now suffer whenever their team scores a goal. Instead of immediately going bonkers, fans now have to wait for the video review to really celebrate.
Only this is more serious. Many hunters have a tradition of a first feast soon after the kill. This celebration is part of the tradition of hunting, and also a way a of honoring the animal that lost its life so the hunter may live. This delay, this intervention of modernity into tradition, in some way diminishes the sacredness of the wild.
And that’s a considerable blow to the sanctity of hunting.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.