Big game hunting season is now underway, and this year Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is doing more than ever before to look for Chronic Wasting Disease. The agency has a million dollars to spend on disease surveillance and testing over the next five years.
Emily Almberg is a disease ecologist with FWP. She says it’s inevitable that the disease will be discovered in Montana any day now.
"We’re all bracing ourselves for that. We have our nearest cases on the Wyoming side just seven miles from our border, which in my mind indicates that it’s probably already here."
Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, infects the central nervous system of cervids like deer, elk and moose. It causes organ damage and death, shortening the average lifespan in infected populations. The disease can especially impact the older, antlered animals hunters most covet.
Since it was first discovered in Colorado in the 1960s, CWD has spread rapidly. Infected free-roaming populations now surround Montana on three sides.
Federal grants used to provide Montana an estimated $130,000 a year to look for CWD. That funding dried up in 2012, bringing surveillance to a near standstill. For its renewed efforts FWP has budgeted $200,000 a year for surveillance and testing for the next five years. The new money is a combination of a federal grant for wildlife research, matched with state funds raised from auctions of hunting licenses.
Almberg is leading the agency’s efforts to test for CWD. She says the expanded efforts are unique in their targeted scope.
"We’re really intensively focusing on these high priority areas that we’ve identified," Almberg says.
The increased funding allows FWP to expand beyond recent efforts that were limited to sampling only animals that appeared symptomatic: emaciated, drooling, or disoriented.
Almberg says the agency hopes to detect CWD before it gets up to even one percent prevalence in the state.
"We know from other places that when prevalence gets high we start to see population level decline. No one knows exactly what that’s going to look like in 50 to 100 years, but for some of those populations, they’re projected to go way down and almost go extinct."
FWP plans to concentrate testing on mule deer, which have shown to be the most susceptible to the disease. In preparation for the surveillance, maps of Montana deer population densities were compared with proximity from known infected populations across the border. This gave FWP a sense of where the disease is likely to first occur in the state.
This winter’s testing is centered in southcentral Montana. It will rotate through different high-risk regions in the coming years.
For now, hunters in areas like Livingston and Big Timber should expect to see FWP collecting samples at hunting check stations.
"Most of the effort will be from cooperating with hunters and asking them if they'll voluntarily participate and allow us to sample their deer or elk," says Almberg.
Samples collected will be sent to a lab in Colorado for testing. Almberg hopes to collect over 1,000 samples this season. She says it’s only a matter of time before one comes back positive.