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Libby's CWD Results Prompt State Council Visit

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Neil Anderson demonstrates how to locate the lymph nodes of a white-tailed deer for CWD testing on Wednesday, September 25, in Libby.
Nick Mott
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Neil Anderson demonstrates how to locate the lymph nodes of a white-tailed deer for CWD testing on Wednesday, September 25, in Libby.

State policy makers in Libby Wednesday got an intimate look at how Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is managing chronic wasting disease in the local white-tailed deer population. The visit comes after the tenth deer tested positive for the disease in the area since this spring.

FWP’s Neil Anderson gave legislators an up close and personal look at the inside of a decapitated deer head, specifically inside of its throat.

“What I like to do is I like to keep my workstation fairly clean," Anderson said.

"A lot of people like to set the head on the cutting board. We’re going to cut a little bit closer here, and just get that exposed so I can see the esophagus and you can see the neck. And if you can look, you can see there’s a little bit of connective tissue right here, and that’s where I want to go.”

Anderson is after the lymph nodes, which hold high concentrations of the prions, or misfolded proteins, that cause CWD. They’ll be sent off for testing.

“. . . and that's about how big they are: They’re about the size of a large kidney bean,” he said.

The disease is primarily transferred through animal-to-animal contact, but it can spread through feces, urine and contaminated plant life.

State lawmakers and members of the public that sit on the interim legislative Environmental Quality Council were in Libby to better understand FWP’s approach to managing CWD. The Council has oversight of this and several other state agencies.

Council member and Libby Rep. Steve Gunderson said he wants his counterparts to understand CWD’s management for several reasons, including the economy of an area without much industry.

“Lincoln County is one of the premier hunting destinations," Gunderson said. "And if we don’t get a handle on the CWD problem, it could devastate our whole hunting economy."

Libby is not the first location in the state where CWD has been detected. But, with 10 confirmed cases in town since this spring, it’s becoming more likely that the disease has been in the area for some time.

That could make management difficult: FWP hopes to keep the disease’s prevalence under 5% of the deer population. FWP Disease Ecologist Emily Almberg said Libby’s urban character adds another layer of difficulty.

“The one issue is that Libby is a pretty high-density deer population, which is a little different from some of the other places we found it in the state,” Almberg said. “And so those conditions are conducive to transmission, pretty intense transmission, which could be driving prevalence higher and faster than we might see other places.”

In order to understand the scope of the disease’s prevalence in the area, FWP plans to sample 400 deer from town and the surrounding 10-mile radius. Anderson, the man who demonstrated how to locate lymph nodes, said the agency has already begun trapping deer in town.

“There’s just been some just general concern about how we’re going to handle deer, and even some concern about we’re going to be removing some does and orphaning fawns,” he said.

Overall, most residents have been supportive, according to Anderson. Some deer harvested during the ongoing archery season have come rolling in to sampling stations, but rifle season, which begins in late October, will likely account for most of the agency’s samples.

FWP isn’t the only one ramping up sampling efforts in the region. Idaho and British Columbia game managers are also stepping up their efforts this fall in response to the detections in Libby.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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