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Wildlife Officials Respond To Chronic Wasting Disease In Montana

Mule deer.
Mule deer.

After discovering what’s believed to be the first case of Chronic Wasting Disease in a wild game animal in Montana Wednesday, state wildlife officials are implementing their response plan.

"We are in the process right now of drawing what we would call an 'initial response area'," says John Vore, the Game Management Bureau Chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "That’s roughly a 10-mile radius around where this animal came from."

Vore says his agency acted quickly to set up an incident command team once Chronic Wasting Disease was confirmed in a mule deer buck a hunter killed near Bridger in October. Fish, Wildlife and Parks notified local landowners as well as public health officials and the Department of Livestock.

Vore says the next step is going to be seeing how widespread the disease is in that location.

"Within that area then, we would go in and intensively sample. We would look at getting enough animals to determine prevalence," says Vore.

There is no way to test for the disease on living animals. FWP will be working with hunters in the area to collect a large sample of harvested deer. Vore says that could mean testing 100 deer in the designated area.

Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, is similar to Mad Cow Disease, but instead of infecting bovines, it spreads through populations of cervids like deer, elk and moose. There has been concern that because of their similarities, CWD could spread to humans the way Mad Cow did.

But Emily Almberg, a disease ecologist with FWP, says "there’s no known cases of transmission, and in fact a lot of the laboratory studies to date suggest that there is a species barrier for transmission to humans."

That said, Almberg is quick to remind anyone who asks that there are still a lot of unknowns about CWD which was first discovered in the 1960s in Colorado.

Jen Fladager is a nurse with the Montana Department of Health. She says although it is not known if infected meat could harm humans, everyone should take precautions.

"Don't eat anything that you know is infected," says Fladager. "So say you go out and harvest a deer and it comes back positive, just dispose of the meat in a safe manner. You have to take it to a Class 2 landfill to get rid of it. And then also just minimize handling of the nervous tissues and lymph tissues. So wear rubber gloves when you're boning meat out and handling those tissues."

Both Fladager and Almberg recommend that anyone who harvests an animal near the confirmed CWD case get their animal tested at a hunting check station or at the regional offices in Billings.

This is the first case of the deadly disease found in the state in nearly two decades, and the first time it has been found in wildlife. A previous case was traced to a game farm.

Maxine is the All Things Considered host and reporter for MTPR. She got her start at MTPR as a Montana News intern. She has also worked at KUNC in Northern Colorado and for Pacific Standard magazine as an editorial fellow covering wildfire and the environment.
Maxine graduated from the University of Montana with a master's degree in natural resource journalism and has a degree in creative writing from Vassar College. When she’s not behind the microphone you can find Maxine skiing, hiking with her not-so-well-behaved dogs, or lost in a book.
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