CWD inevitable in Montana? State wildlife officials bulk up surveillance efforts

The widespread extermination of wolves and cougars early last century meant elk herds that the carnivores prey on were able to grow in size. The swollen herds ate away willow plants and other vegetation along the park's streams, causing erosion damage, a recent study says.

Chronic wasting disease has not yet been discovered in Montana’s wild populations of deer, elk and moose, but as the disease continues to expand to the north, south and east of the state, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials believe it is only a matter of time before it is in Montana.

This fall, FWP is ramping up its CWD surveillance program again with financial help from the Mule Deer Foundation and The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

FWP’s surveillance plan calls for rotating surveillance efforts amongst three priority areas of the state: south central, south east and north central/east. This year’s focus will be on the south-central priority area.

Surveillance efforts will primarily consist of collecting samples from hunter harvested deer at game check stations and cooperating meat processors and taxidermists.

The Mule Deer Foundation donated $5,000 and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation donated up to $10,000 toward this year’s effort.

Additionally, FWP is asking people who get salvage permits for roadkill deer in specific counties to voluntarily submit their heads for testing. Those counties are Sheridan, Treasure, Daniels, Valley, Toole, Phillips, Liberty, Blaine, Hill, Custer, Rosebud, Musselshell, Golden Valley, Yellowstone, Carter, Sweet Grass, Park, Stillwater, Big Horn, Powder River, Carbon, Granite, and Roosevelt.

FWP started testing for CWD in 1998 and has compiled more than 17,000 postmortem samples from free-ranging deer, elk and moose – all of which were negative. There is no non-invasive, reliable test for live animals. Unfortunately, federal funding for testing was cut back in 2012, so the agency now limits sampling to high-risk areas or symptomatic animals.

FWP will be focusing their surveillance efforts on mule deer, which transmit CWD more effectively than elk, moose, and whitetails. The first priority is symptomatic animals, followed by road-killed animals, whose symptoms may have contributed to their deaths. After that, the recommendation is to test seemingly healthy hunter-harvested adult bucks and does. Among mule deer, bucks are twice as likely as does to test positive for CWD.

The only documented cases of CWD in Montana were in captive elk at a game farm in Philipsburg in 1999. However, CWD has been detected in free-ranging populations in 21 other states and two Canadian provinces – some very near the border with Montana. In fact, it has been detected in all of the states or provinces with which Montana shares a border, except for Idaho and British Columbia.

In other parts of the country, wildlife management agencies have dealt with CWD for years. In Wyoming and Colorado, officials are beginning to see population declines in infected mule deer and whitetail herds due to the high prevalence of the disease.

Some tools are already in place to prevent the disease in Montana, such as a ban on full carcasses or certain carcass parts being brought into the state from areas with CWD, and a ban on feeding deer, which causes them to congregate. The state does not relocate cervids from one area to another, nor does it rehabilitate and release them back into the wild due to concerns over CWD. Game farm animals are classified as alternative livestock.

For more information on CWD in Montana, go to

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