Flattening the curve on chronic wasting disease

| August 26, 2020 1:00 AM

It’s cool this morning. There is a different feel to the air. The days are slowly getting shorter, my bird dogs are getting restless and I am listening for that first bugle of a bull elk down in the river bottom. It’s that time when I, and all hunters, anxiously prepare for the glorious days we spend pursuing our quarry in the forests and uplands of our Montana. But this year things are different, and as we take to the field we must acknowledge that difference and change our behavior for the sake of the hunt, our wildlife and our fellow hunters.

Over the past six months Montanans have gotten a lesson in “flattening the curve” and as a state we’re working hard to keep Covid 19’s spread to a minimum. We’ve learned the importance of social distancing and surveillance testing. It’s a lesson we can use to protect our deer, elk and moose from chronic wasting disease, the always-fatal neurological condition that was first detected here in 2017 and is spreading across the state.

As we’ve learned, social distancing is essential to limit the spread of Covid 19 in people. That means being physically separated by enough space to prevent transmission. We’ve had to work from home, shut down large swaths of our economy and limit gatherings. It’s been tough, but necessary.

As with Covid 19, keeping large concentrations of wild deer and elk from occurring is critical in limiting the spread of CWD. The disease is spread through bodily fluids and direct contact between animals, so when they’re concentrated in large groups it’s far more likely to spread. As there is no known immunity and the disease is always fatal, our only option is to reduce the density of game in areas with a high prevalence of CWD. It’s a difficult proposition, because as hunters and wildlife enthusiasts we all like to have an abundance of animals.

Testing, like with COVID 19, plays a critical role in the management of CWD. With a robust, proactive testing program for hunter-harvested animals we can detect areas with higher prevalence of CWD and focus on these hotspots to lower the spread. Montana is off to a good start since the first detection of CWD in 2017. Last year large scale testing occurred for the first time and the roughly 7,000 animals sampled showed an infection rate of 2 percent. That’s a level we can live with and we need to keep it there.

So, what can we do as individual hunters? First, do not inadvertently spread the disease. This happens by transporting and disposing game carcasses improperly. Montana just updated its statewide regulation on the transport of game carcasses and requires them to be either left in the field or disposed of in a Class One landfill in the area where the animal was killed.

Second, report any animals that show signs of CWD (i.e.: underweight, confusion, stumbling) and participate in the state’s proactive testing program of hunter harvested animals.

Finally, keep informed about CWD prevalence in areas you hunt. Do your part in keeping animals dispersed by participating in hunts designed to keep large groups of animals from congregating and by supporting hunter access initiatives that keep our elk and deer well distributed on the landscape during our liberal general hunting season.

As hunters, we must be committed to doing our part to ”flatten the curve on CWD.”

Tom Puchlerz is a retired biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. He serves as president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.