A mule deer buck shot in late October about 10 miles southeast of Bridger has tested positive for exposure to chronic wasting disease.
If confirmed by a Colorado laboratory it will be the first time the deadly contagious disease has been found in Montana wildlife and carries ominous overtones.
“We’ve suspected it wasn’t a matter of if, but when CWD would show up in Montana,” said Ken McDonald, FWP Wildlife Division administrator, in a statement. “Fortunately, we’ve done a lot of work to prepare for this, and are hopeful the prevalence will be low as we work toward managing the disease.”
Only a day earlier, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a new CWD response plan for public comment. Contained in that document is a protocol for dealing with positive CWD cases in the wild.
"We got the results back late yesterday," said Bob Gibson, FWP information officer in Billings. "The commission had just adjourned."
The deer was shot in southern Carbon County in Hunting District 510, not far from its border with HD 502 and close to the boundary of the Crow Indian Reservation. The deer was killed between Belfry and Warren close to Black Butte, about 50 miles from where an animal tested positive for CWD in Wyoming.
"We all thought that was the county where it would show up," said Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation.
FWP has notified landowners in the area where the deer was harvested and the hunter who submitted the suspect sample. The hunter has the option to turn in the deer meat and antlers and receive a new tag.
FWP director Martha Williams has created an incident command team that will consist mostly of Billings FWP staff including its supervisor, wildlife manager, warden captain, Gibson and area wildlife biologist, Shawn Stewart.
Gibson said that within the next 48 hours the team will define an area around where the infected animal was shot, and may recommend a special CWD hunt, which would need commission approval. Tags for the hunt could be issued to anyone, but that determination and the cost will be made by FWP's Helena licensing staff.
"We're trying to move as quickly as possible on this," Gibson said. "That's why we had the plan, so there's a roadmap.
"We're also trying to figure out how many deer there are in that area, how they are distributed, where they are at this time of the year and when and how they migrate to decide if we should have a special season and what the rules would be," he added.
The goal of a special CWD hunt would be to collect enough samples to determine disease prevalence and distribution. CWD can be effectively detected only in samples from dead animals. FWP would rely on hunters to harvest enough animals to make the determination. On Tuesday John Vore, FWP's Wildlife Management Bureau chief, told commissioners that depending on deer density the hunt would need to kill 150 to 300 deer.
The CWD plan mentions a 10-mile radius to collect the samples, but that may be too small for the sparsely populated area where the CWD-positive deer was shot, Gibson said. "That may not get us enough samples to be statistically valid."
HD 510 is a permit-only area for mule deer buck hunting, which may affect how the agency responds. FWP is contemplating letting permit hunters finish out the season, which ends on Nov. 26, before opening the area to a planned hunt.
CWD has spread across Wyoming from Colorado and is now found in North Dakota, South Dakota and Canada, essentially surrounding Montana on three sides.
The slow-moving disease afflicts mule deer especially hard but also infects elk, moose and white-tailed deer. Left unmanaged, it could result in long-term population declines within affected herds.
"In no state where it's been detected has it been eliminated," said Gevock, of the Montana Wildlife Federation, adding that that detection "speaks to the need ... to do anything we can to reduce those disease vectors like elk feedgrounds in Wyoming."
Outbreaks of disease have become a huge heartburn for FWP in the past decade. First there was detection of brucellosis in wild elk, prompting a surveillance area that extends to counties in Montana encircling Yellowstone National Park. Then in 2016 a fish-killing virus in the Yellowstone River prompted the governor to temporarily close almost 200 miles of the river and its tributaries to all recreation. That was followed in the fall of 2016 by news that invasive mussels had been detected in Tiber Reservoir and possibly Canyon Ferry Reservoir. The state has now dedicated millions of dollars to fighting the mussel invasion by creating more boat check stations to aid in detection.
"This (CWD) will make the mussel response look like kid's play," Gibson said.
For now, FWP is encouraging all hunters harvesting deer within the area (hunting districts 502 and 510) to get their game sampled by stopping at the Laurel check station, which is open on weekends, or by contacting or visiting the FWP regional office in Billings at 247-2940.
"People have been hauling heads into the office here," Gibson said.
For more information and to look at test results, go online to fwp.mt.gov/cwd.