Montana should conduct a study of methods to prevent and understand chronic wasting disease which has the ability to severely reduce deer, moose and elk populations, the Senate Fish and Wildlife Committee was told on Tuesday.

That’s the purpose of Senate Joint Resolution 9, sponsored by Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, which had its first hearing before the committee. No action was taken.

Tim Feldner, who wrote Montana’s first CWD plan in 2005, said that the importance of containing the disease is not only about wildlife but also the state’s economy, which derives millions in revenue annually from hunters and wildlife watchers.

A 2011 study by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation put the economic impact of hunting in Montana at $633 million annually, accounting for more than 11,000 jobs.

“Funding is definitely needed to increase surveillance planning as well as preventive measures,” Feldner testified. “Prevention is the first thing that needs to be done.”

First discovered in the 1960s in Colorado and Wyoming, CWD surrounds Montana and possibly already exists in the state undetected. Since 2006 the disease has spread from 14 states and two Canadian provinces to 23 states, including North and South Dakota.

The disease is fatal and no cure exists. It infects the animal’s brain, much like mad cow disease, leading to lethargy, loss of weight and eventually death. What’s more, the proteins that cause the disease are capable of living in the soil and plants, meaning once an infection is present in an environment it may be impossible to eradicate.

Feldner testified that over the course of 20 years infected wildlife populations could decline by 20 percent. The disease could prove especially devastating to animals gathered in close proximity, such as the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming where thousands of elk overwinter.

So far, CWD has not been found to infect humans, although it closely resembles Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal human brain disorder. Despite that fact, hunters are encouraged not to eat meat from animals that are believed to have been infected with CWD.

“It’s better to move more quickly than not,” said Jean Johnson, of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, quoting an outfitter she had talked with.

“Economics didn’t come up at all,” in discussing the measure with outfitters, she said, “it was the intrinsic value of wildlife.”

Under the joint resolution, which requires passage by both the Senate and House, an interim committee would direct a study and make recommendations regarding: the potential impacts of CWD on deer, elk and moose populations and the economy in Montana; measures to prevent CWD and protect deer, elk, and moose in Montana; surveillance strategies for detecting CWD; and management of herds that become infected to prevent the spread of CWD.

The resolution suggests the study be completed by September 2018 in time to be reported to the next Legislature.

Quentin Kujala, Wildlife Management Section chief for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the committee that right now the agency is “at the limit of capacity when it comes to surveillance.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.