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FWP answers questions about CWD


December 22, 2017

Havre Daily News/Paul Dragu

Fish Wildlife and Parks Havre-area biologist Scott Hemmer, left, and Region 6 Wildlife Manager Scott Thompson talk to people about chronic wasting disease Thursday night in the Hill County Electric Cooperative Community Room.

An inquisitive crowd attended a meeting Thursday night in which Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks representatives discussed a recently approved special hunt intended to gauge the prevalence of chronic wasting disease among deer, moose and elk in north-central Montana.

The results of the hunt, scheduled to begin Jan. 6 and take place in a 226-square mile area in the Sage Creek area, could have implications on next fall's hunting season, FWP reps said.

CWD, a progressive, fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose, was first discovered in 1967 in Colorado. Evidence indicates the disease is more likely to infect mule deer, the FWP officials said. It causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death. It is not known to infect humans. It is, however, recommended not to eat animals that test positive for CWD.

Colorado had seen as high as 48 percent deer reduction over the years due to CWD, they said. Twenty-five U.S. states have had or continue to have cases of CWD. The arrival of CWD to Montana surprised no one at FWP, Region 6 Supervisor Mark Sullivan said.

Seven deer in Montana have been found with CWD, a mule buck north of Chester and six more bucks near Billings, 10 miles southeast of Bridger. The Billings region is having a similar special CWD hunt.

During the meeting, FWP Havre-area biologist Scott Hemmer, Region 6 Wildlife Manager Scott Thompson and Region 4 Wildlife Manager Graham Taylor shared background information on CWD and answered questions in the Hill County Electric Cooperative Hospitality Room about the decades-old degenerative disease.

People wanted to know about the incubation period, which is typically about two years.

Thompson called CWD a "slow-moving disease," it's long incubation period adding to the challenges, among them tracing an infected animal's origins and detecting whether it has CWD at all. There are still a lot of things not known about CWD, including important details about the transmission, the three men said, something they hope to learn more as evidence is gathered from the upcoming hunt.

A video played at the beginning of the meeting narrated by an ecologist said FWP's goal was to keep the number of infected animals at five percent. People wanted to know why that specific percentage and what happens if it surges beyond that threshold.

"We're looking to slow the spread," Hemmer said. "We're not going to wipe it out."

A CWD management plan handbook details many options and scenarios.

Thompson said after the meeting that options - should CWD infect more than five percent of game animals - could include actions aimed to reduce the deer population; fencing out deer magnets such as grain piles and hay bales; and tinkering with the age and sex ratios.

"These are all possibilities," Thompson said, adding that much depends on what happens in the upcoming hunt.

Since  CWD cases are more prevalent in Alberta, Canada, and Wyoming, people wanted to know if FWP is working with neighbors. Yes, FWP is learning from, trading information with and working on solutions to CWD, the officials said. The special hunt, however, will be contained to Montana, Hemmer said.

Someone asked if test kits are available for the public. Hemmer said there were not, but anyone who wants their deer tested can contact FWP. And no amount of cooking can rid the animal of CWD either, Hemmer said, in response to another question.

People asked if CWD can infect animals who prey on deer or if the disease can be transmitted by having contact with infected animal's waste. No and no, Hemmer said. There is no evidence to suggest wolves, bears or other predators have gotten CWD, or that any other animals have contracted it from contact with an infected animal's waste.

The licenses for the hunt are $10 apiece for instate residents and $20 for nonresidents and go on sale Tuesday, online at 5 a.m. and in hunting license outlets when they open.

FWP will sell 335 deer B licenses in an effort to harvest 135 mule deer. Of those 335 licenses, 60 would be either sex and 275 would be antlerless. Hunters can buy more than one license, depending on how many they bought during regular hunting season.

The hunt will last through Feb. 15, but could close sooner should the quota be reached.

"We need 135 dead deer," Taylor said, adding the lymph nodes are what is needed for testing.

A similar meeting was held Tuesday in Chester in the town's high school auditorium.

It's not all doom and gloom, the officials added.

"We're optimistic that we'll be successful because we're trying to find it early before reaching a high prevalence," Thompson said.


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