Tests Indicate no CWD Infection in Deer and Elk

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Results of nearly 1,000 deer and elk tested for chronic wasting disease last winter indicate the deadly disease has not infected Montana’s wild, free-ranging herds, state wildlife officials announced today.

The tissue samples from a total of 997 deer and elk harvested by hunters in 2002, or collected by FWP, were sent to the National Veterinary Service Laboratory in Ames, Iowa for analysis. Due to the volume of testing for CWD nationwide, Montana’s results just became available last week.

While the testing indicates a clean bill of health for Montana's wild deer and elk herds, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Jeff Hagener says the agency remains vigilant and plans to continue intensive testing during the fall hunting seasons. In addition, FWP will continue year-round testing of all animals that appear sick or emaciated.

"CWD has turned up in wild deer in Utah, South Dakota, Wyoming and Saskatchewan," says Hagener. "With that proximity, it’s probably only a matter of time before it enters Montana. We need to have a large enough sample to more confidently say we do or don’t have it, or to pinpoint any herds that may be infected."

CWD is a rare brain disease that causes infected deer and elk to lose weight and body functions, behave abnormally and eventually die. The ailment belongs to a family of diseases called "transmissible spongiform encephalopathies," which include mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD, in humans. The test for CWD is done by sampling a specific portion of an animal's brain, tonsils or lymph nodes. There is no practical or reliable way to test live animals or meat. There is no known cure for CWD.

Public health officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have found no link between CWD in deer and elk and disease in humans and say there is no evidence that CWD can be naturally transmitted to humans. Scientific studies, however, are still in progress to determine if CWD poses any risk to human health.

FWP has tested more than 2,700 wild deer and elk for CWD since 1996, most intensively in high-risk areas along Montana’s northeastern, eastern and southeastern borders. Intensive sampling has also been continued in the Philipsburg area, near the alternative livestock facility where CWD was detected in a captive elk in 1999, and near Hardin, where tuberculosis was detected in and around an alternative livestock facility in 1994.

"We would expect to find CWD first in these border areas, where it might enter from infected states and provinces, and around the facility where it was detected and, we think, eradicated, in the past," said Keith Aune, supervisor of FWP’s wildlife laboratory in Bozeman. "We’re actively looking for the disease in animals harvested by hunters and through statewide testing of all symptomatic animals."

In addition to the 2,700 free-ranging deer and elk tested by FWP, another 2,300 captive deer and elk from Montana’s alternative livestock facilities have been tested for CWD since 1996. All those captive animals, except for those at Phillipsburg, were free of the disease

This fall, FWP will collect more deer and elk tissue samples from animals harvested by hunters, again with emphasis in eastern Montana and other high-risk areas. In addition, the agency is seeking funding to cover additional tests and to help develop a statewide management plan to respond to CWD, if and when the disease is detected in Montana wildlife.

"We will provide opportunities for the public to learn about and comment on our management plans," says Hagener. "We are taking this disease very seriously. We hope it never arrives in Montana, but we want to be ready in case it does."