For the third consecutive hunting season Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is asking hunters to assist in an effort to determine if chronic wasting disease (CWD) is present in Montana's wild deer and elk herds.
CWD, which is fatal to deer and elk, has become a concern to western state wildlife managers. Since 1998, FWP biologists have asked hunters at game check stations for permission to take the heads of harvested game for CWD testing. In addition, biologists and wardens have conducted "targeted surveillance" of elk and deer that appear to display clinical symptoms suggestive of CWD -- emaciated animals that appear listless, with blank facial expressions, excessive salivation, lowered heads and, in some cases, hyperexcitability and nervousness.
Over the past two hunting seasons, FWP tested 1,030 wild elk and deer taken by hunters. None of the animals had CWD. To date, the only known CWD infected elk from Montana were detected at an alternative livestock facility near Phillipsburg. Those nine animals were destroyed last year.
This season, FWP officials will conduct CWD surveillance of wild deer and elk from the Phillipsburg area and in selected areas in southwestern Montana. The survey around Phillipsburg will be implemented in southwestern Montana hunting districts 210, 211, 212, 213, 214, and 216.
"All permitted deer and elk hunters in these districts are being contacted by mail and requested to voluntarily submit deer and elk heads at check stations or in barrels located at strategic points within the surveillance area," said Keith Aune, FWP's wildlife lab supervisor in Bozeman. "We'll also take samples at the Ruby and Mill Creek game check stations in southwestern Montana."
Aune said the sampling of the Ruby Creek area south of Alder and the Mill Creek area south of Anaconda is intended to expand the geographic distribution of previous surveillance activities.
The origin and the mode of transmission of CWD are unknown. The disease is similar to other forms of "transmissible spongiform encephalopathies," like scrapie in sheep, and mad cow disease in cattle. Because the disease cannot be detected in living animals, brain-tissue samples must be collected from the heads of deer and elk taken by hunters or wildlife officials.
In 1998, FWP and the Montana Department of Livestock agreed to carry out a plan to determine if CWD is present in Montana. Measures include testing wild elk and deer and animals from alternative livestock facilities.
"Hunter cooperation and participation will be essential to the success of this wildlife disease surveillance effort," Aune said.