People with good intentions are tempted each spring to remove newborn deer and elk from the wild. This year, as part of Montana's effort to control the risk of spreading chronic wasting disease (CWD), taking a deer fawn or elk calf from the wild could prove to be fatal for the animal.
"This is the time of year when deer and elk are being born in Montana. Our message is, 'If you care, leave them there,'" said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim. "Because of the impending threat of CWD, we can no longer assuredly accept, hold, rehabilitate and then release deer and elk back to the wild. The risks associated with CWD are real and we must do what we can to manage the risks that are under our control."
CWD is a brain disease in deer and elk that causes infected animals to lose weight and body functions, behave abnormally and eventually die. The disease can pass from animal to animal by physical contact and is most likely transmitted orally, making confined animals of particular concern. Exposure to an environment contaminated by an infected animal may affect additional animals. CWD belongs to a family of diseases that include mad cow disease in cattle.
Many young wild animals are delivered to FWP because some people don't understand that wildlife commonly hide newborn animals for safety and to protect them from predators. "To the average person it appears the newborn is abandoned, but the adult is usually nearby," Aasheim said. "The most humane and thoughtful choice is to leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible, without disturbing anything.”
If someone brings a deer or elk to FWP, officials will ask that the animal be immediately returned to the location where it was found. If the animal can't be returned, it will be humanely euthanized using defined procedures to minimize pain and distress, Aasheim said.
The policy is aimed at eliminating one risk factor that could spread chronic wasting disease in Montana. Aasheim said animals housed at FWP’s wildlife rehabilitation center in Helena--or any holding site--could inadvertently spread CWD from there back into the wild or to other captive facilities.
"This is a difficult thing for our agency to do," Aasheim said. "No one wants to be responsible for the death of a fawn or calf. We've discussed our options with wildlife disease experts and we've concluded that FWP must take this action to protect the state's wildlife populations."
Aasheim stressed that it is illegal to possess or remove any game animal, game bird, songbird, furbearer or bird of prey from the wild. Fines can be issued for these violations, he said.
More than 7,000 wild deer and elk have been tested for CWD in Montana since 1996. While none tested positive for CWD, wildlife health experts believe that it's only a matter of time before CWD is found in Montana's wild deer or elk herds.
The disease has been confirmed in wild deer in Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and in Saskatchewan, Canada, just 120 miles north of Montana. In 1999, nine elk from one Montana alternative livestock facility were diagnosed with CWD following complete eradication of the captive herd.