Montana's Environmental Quality Council (EQC) to focus on Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

For the past few years, I’ve been blessed to represent our corner and this great state as a citizen member of the Montana Environmental Quality Council (EQC). As a group, we focus on gathering and evaluating information and undertaking the difficult work of maintaining and improving the balance between us humans and the environment here in our last, best place. 

The council is valiantly served by a hard-working staff of researchers, analysts and support with Legislative Services. As an “interim committee,” we meet quarterly during the years in between the Montana Legislative sessions. It’s truly a fascinating council. We get to learn volumes and weigh in on pretty much everything imaginable that falls under the auspices of the Montana Departments of Environmental Quality, Natural Resources and Conservation and Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 

(You can learn more about the EQC here: https://leg.mt.gov/committees/interim/2019eqc/ )

Each interim period, the EQC formulates a work plan that dictates the amount of time and energy we will spend on the most important environmental topics in Montana. This period, one of the most important issues we are devoting our time and energy to is Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD as it’s more commonly referred. 

Normally, I won’t stray too far from the environmental cleanup and Superfund-related topics of Butte and the Upper Clark Fork basin, but this is an exception. The timing to focus on CWD is perfect too. Archery hunting season is in swing and with rifle season right around the corner, learning more about this disease is a very important endeavor towards better controlling it.

Here in Montana, where outdoor recreation is not only an important economic sector but part of our culture, the more hunters know about it, the better off we all will be.

What is CWD? 

In a nutshell, CWD is a progressive disease that is fatal to deer (both white-tailed and mule), elk and moose, as well as reindeer and caribou. The disease is unique in that it’s not a virus, bacteria or fungus, but rather, a protein mutation, which results in progressive damage to an infected animal’s organs and eventually its death. The name CWD comes from the skinny, sickly appearance that affected animals have prior to dying.  

CWD was first documented in the United States in the late 1960’s in Colorado but has spread widely since. In the 1990s, Montana detected CWD in elk at a game farm near Philipsburg, but luckily the disease was never found in wild populations, despite FWP looking for it over the past 20 years.

In 2017 the first wild deer in Montana tested positive for CWD in an area south of Billings. Since then surveillance for the disease has increased and CWD has now been found in the following counties (seats in parentheses): Lincoln (Libby), Carbon (Red Lodge), Liberty (Chester), Hill (Havre), Blaine (Chinook), Phillips (Malta), Valley (Glasgow), Daniels (Scobey) and Sheridan (Plentywood).

Libby has been the focus for the past several months, as 10 white-tailed deer from the urban population have tested positive for CWD. 

Based on the presence of the disease in these counties, FWP has set up CWD Management Zones in the hunting districts in these areas (see the map found at the FWP weblink provided below). Here’s what hunters who hunt in these CWD Management areas need to know:

·      Stop at one of the check stations to have your deer, elk and moose sampled for CWD. 

·      No carcasses, heads or spines from deer, elk or moose are allowed to be taken out of these areas unless the animal has been sampled and confirmed to be free of CWD. 

·      Hunters are only allowed to take the following out of CWD areas: Cut-and-wrapped meat, or meat that is boned out; quarters or portions of meat with no parts of the spine or head attached; hides without heads attached; antlers or skull plates with no meat or tissue attached; upper canine teeth.

·      As a precautionary measure, animals harvested in these areas should not be eaten until it is confirmed they do not have the disease. Test confirmation takes about three weeks. There are no known cases of a human being infected by CWD. However, since CWD is in the same family of diseases as Mad Cow Disease, it is a conservative measure not to eat the meat from a CWD infected animal.  

Here in southwestern MT, CWD has not been found in our wild game populations to date. However, due to the prior CWD detection in elk at a former commercial game farm near Philipsburg, FWP has established a priority sampling area in hunting districts 210, 212 and 217 (again, see map).

Hunters in these areas are encouraged to stop at a check station to have their animals sampled, or to take a sample on their own and send it in to FWP, according to the directions at the website (linked below). In fact, hunters in ANY area in Montana can send in a sample or submit their animal’s head to a CWD check station for CWD testing. FWP is covering the costs of sampling and will furnish replacement tags to hunters who shoot an animal that tests positive for CWD, although the tag is only good for the 2019 season. 

Hunters should abide by the following general precautions against CWD, regardless of the area in which he/she is hunting:

·      Wear protective gloves and eyewear when field dressing animals and thoroughly wash knives, saws, etc. after use.

·      Minimize your contact with brain, spinal column and organs when field dressing and cutting meat, as these are the parts of the animal where CWD prions are known to concentrate.

·      Unless you bone out or quarter your meat in the field, always dispose of your carcass in a permitted landfill. 

The general take-home message for all hunters is like anything else: exercise caution. Don’t let the fear of CWD ruin your hunt or keep you from hunting at all. The vast majority of hunting districts in Montana are not CWD areas. And in the ones that are, the percentage of animals carrying the disease is likely very small. It’s also important to note that CWD in Montana has only been detected in deer. Elk and moose have not been documented to carry the disease in Montana’s wild populations to date.  

I strongly encourage hunters and others to visit FWP’s website. One can find pretty much anything he or she would ever need to know about CWD in Montana and beyond at this link: 

http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/diseasesAndResearch/diseases/chronicWastingDisease/management.html . 

Also as a citizen member of the EQC, if you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I will do my best to get you the information you need.

PHOTO CUTLINE: Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 1 Wildlife Program Manager Neil Anderson demonstrates how to collect the lymph nodes from a whitetail deer head. Hunters can send their own samples to FWP to be tested for CWD for no charge.