Montana has high stake in controlling wildlife diseases

2013-11-19T00:00:00Z Montana has high stake in controlling wildlife diseases The Billings Gazette
November 19, 2013 12:00 am

Gazette readers don’t often see images of a moose necropsy on the Sunday front page. But the 1A report by Gazette Outdoors editor Brett French and photographer James Woodcock calls attention to important issues of health for wildlife, livestock, humans and the Montana economy.

Wildlife watchers, hunters and anglers have long known that wildlife diseases can affect their favorite outdoor activities. These recreationists need to take Fish, Wildlife and Parks recommended precautions seriously and follow them consistently.

Whirling disease has threatened Montana’s blue ribbon trout streams. Blue tongue and epizootic hemorrhagic disease have decimated whitetail deer herds.

Brucellosis is the bane of cattle ranchers and bison lovers. In fact, the disease outbreaks occurring in Montana livestock have been traced to elk infection. Thus, Montana authorities have focused on separating cattle from bison and elk during calving season. Government-funded research is under way on birth control for bison, and the interagency bison management plan calls for restricting bison to certain areas adjoining Yellowstone Park at certain times of the year.

Spread by mosquitoes, West Nile virus afflicts humans and horses as well as wildlife.

Perhaps the biggest threat statewide would be the arrival of chronic wasting disease, which has killed entire herds of deer in other states. CWD also sickens elk.

It is caused by rogue proteins, called prions, that attack the central nervous system and is related to spongiform encephalopothies that cause scrapie in sheep, mad cow disease and Cueutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

“There is a general consensus among scientists that we are seeing more disease,” Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., told French.

Some diseases, such as white nose syndrome, which has decimated bat populations in the Eastern United States are spread by people — spelunkers who don’t wash their boots well. Ponds built for coalbed methane production have increased mosquito populations and the incidence of wildlife contracting West Nile virus. Wyoming requires some of these ponds to be sprayed.

The spread of other diseases has been linked to climate changes.

This fall an estimated 400 whitetail deer perished in northwestern Montana because of epizootic hemorrhagic disease.

“That was the first case of EHD documented west of the Divide,” FWP veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey said. “We’ve had it in Eastern Montana year after year.”

As French reported, the biting midge that spreads EHD thrives in warmer weather and drought, which is what the Missoula area saw this summer.

Wildlife researchers and veterinarians have some tools to confront wildlife diseases. But this area of research doesn’t get nearly the support of research on livestock and human diseases.

Yet there are many connections between healthy wildlife populations and healthy people. Those connections deserve attention especially in a state where agriculture is the top cash industry, followed by tourism.

In Montana, the health of our wildlife affects citizens’ lives and livelihoods.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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