HELENA — Big game hunting season isn’t quite over, with muzzleloader, some shoulder seasons and a few special hunts still going on. For Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the numbers are coming in for chronic wasting disease (CWD) test samples from across the state, and so far so good.
“We’ve collected a little over 8,000 samples to date, which is about 1,000 over where we were last year at this time. So, we’ve increased a bit and we anticipate more samples coming in through the muzzleloader season and shoulder seasons over the holidays we have a special hunt going on," disease ecologist for FWP Emily Almberg told MTN. "So we’re planning to accommodate those as best we can. I don’t quite know what to expect with numbers, but we’re anticipating samples trickling in.”
For those not in the know, CWD is an always-fatal neurological disease found in deer, elk and moose. It first officially popped up in the state in 2017 and since then has established itself in a few hot spots around the state. But the good news, so far, is that number is not spreading.
“We’re sort of on pace with what we found last year," said Almberg. "Right now we’re just over 200 positives for this year alone. I believe that is similar to last year around this time. And again, we continue to find high areas of prevalence in southwest Montana and up in the Libby area and a pretty consistent area of infection up on the Hi-Line. Sort of scattered, diffused positives through Southeastern Montana, Eastern Montana.”
So more samples and not, really, any more positive results for the disease. That’s about the best of this bad situation as we can have. Another positive about our current CWD situation is that more and more hunters are helping fight the disease.
“They are more aware, and we continue to see high interest in concern over the disease. It gives us good information about the presence and the prevalence of the disease across the state. You know, we get about half of our samples from priority sampling areas," said Almberg. "Areas that we are really, actively seeking samples to try and assess the disease’s presence or its prevalence and the other half are scattered across the state, which is great for just general surveillance. There are parts of the state that we haven’t yet rigorously sampled, so it gives us the opportunity to potentially detect things there. There were no big surprises this year though. So we have continued to reinforce and improved out estimates of prevalence in non-positive areas.”
As of Dec. 10, the only small exception is CWD being detected in a white-tail deer doe for the first time in hunting district 317 near Livingston. Samples from the deer will undergo further testing to confirm the presence of the disease. And all this data is helping to pave a road map to fight the spread of CWD down the road.
"So I think we are poised to do quite a bit more. You know we can continue to try and provide information to hunters about where those positive areas are so they are informed, they know to get their animal’s tested before consuming them," Almberg told MTN. "So in that sense, the surveillance serves that critical piece of public education and informing hunters. Then as I said, we’re setting the baseline to evaluate those longer-term management efforts. That’s going to be long-term process. We don’t anticipate seeing immediate answers or immediate changes. This is a pretty slow-moving disease and it takes time to turn things back the other way.”
In addition to increased hunter-led monitoring efforts and testing, CWD management hunts are underway in several Region-3 hunting districts.