The main focus of Thursday's Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission meeting was updating Montana's hunting regulations for the next two years, but the issue of chronic wasting disease kept popping up.
This fall, CWD was first detected in Montana in a deer shot in Carbon County. In total, five mule deer and one whitetail deer were found to have the disease. Although it was an unwanted situation, it was hardly a surprise. Infected deer in Wyoming had been moving closer to Montana, and last year, a deer tested positive within 8 miles of the border very close to Carbon County. So FWP biologists knew it was probably just a matter of time before the disease entered the state, if it hadn’t already.
CWD is hard to combat because it’s caused by malformed malignant proteins called prions rather than bacteria or viruses. So it can’t be killed or controlled by vaccines or antibiotics. The prions invade the brain much like mad-cow disease and are passed from one animal to another through bodily fluids. Once deposited on the landscape, prions can exist for months to years to be picked up by another animal. Deer tend to be more susceptible although CWD can also infect elk and moose.
For that reason, the Montana Legislature in 2017 passed a ban on any elk or deer-urine products produced in states where CWD exists unless the commission determined the product met certain requirements. That doesn't leave many options as the disease now exists in 23 states and two Canadian providences. Hunters use urine to draw deer in but it could spread the disease if the urine contains prions.
On Thursday, FWP Big Game Chief John Vore asked the commission to adopt Archery Trade Association criteria to evaluate which urine products could be used in Montana.
Commissioner Shane Colton worried that it would be difficult to police whether hunters were using approved products since products can be bought over the Internet.
“There’s a strong education component that needs go out,” Colton said. “Since it’s going to be impossible to enforce in any reasonable way – the first thing I do is tape my bottle up with camo tape so I can’t see the label – we need to let folks know that they need to get the certified stuff, and I don’t know how to do that.”
After the commission voted to allow hunters to comment on the criteria, Vore got commission approval to move ahead with a CWD disease hunt in Hunting District 501 of Carbon County.
The intent of the hunt is to deduce how much of the deer population has the disease. Once the disease is present, the best situation is to keep the infection rate to less than 5 percent of the population, because then prions can’t spread throughout the environment or the population as quickly.
On Dec. 11, FWP will sell 600 mule deer “B” tags and 600 whitetail “B” tags for a hunt starting on Dec. 16. The goal is to get 200 of each species for sampling. The hunt will run until Feb. 15 or until the quotas are reached.
“This is a disease that moves slowly through a population but we need to get to it as soon as possible. We’ll see what kind of participation we get – this is new territory for us. We don’t know how anxious people are going to be to buy a license to go down and shoot an animal potentially infected with CWD,” Vore said.
Although humans cannot contract the disease from touching infected animals, it’s not advisable to eat the meat. And hunters won’t know until after test results come back from Colorado whether their animal is infected.
On Dec. 5, FWP also received a positive test from a deer shot near Chester in northern Montana. Again, it was no surprise, because in recent years, several diseased deer have been taken north of the Canadian border.
Vore said he would bring a similar disease hunt to the commissioners for Hunting District 401. Region 4 Supervisor Gary Bertolotti indicated he’d like the hunt to start on Jan. 1.
Montana has been one of the last holdouts against CWD, although it did show up briefly a few decades ago in a Philipsburg elk farm. Since then, CWD has been poised to invade from three sides of the state with the Wyoming elk feedgrounds posing the worst threat.
The feedgrounds near Jackson Hole cause elk and other ungulates to gather in unnatural groups where CWD could more easily move through a large number of animals.
So on Thursday, the FWP commission sent a letter to the Wyoming Game Commission, encouraging it to eliminate the feedgrounds. Commission chair Dan Vermillion said the letter probably wouldn’t be successful but the subject needed to be broached.
“The department is going to spend a lot of time and energy and probably a lot of precious resources dealing with this disease going forward. As hard as it is for all of us to contemplate shooting a thousand deer strictly to find out the extent of this disease, if we’re doing that up here and there’s no change south of the border, I’m really unclear about how we’ll be able to turn back the clock on CWD,” Vermillion said. “We’re now in a club we never wanted to be in, and I think it’s really unfair to the people of Montana.”