Chronic Killer

Bracing for a wildlife pandemic.

Humans aren’t the only ones who could take a few notes on disease transmission this year; it’d behoove Montana ungulates to spread the word as well. That’s right, there’s another pandemic on the way, and it’s coming quicker than we think. In 2017, we saw its first case, and it’s only a matter of time before the larger valley reeks of its presence. 

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was first discovered in Colorado in 1967. Once it left the game farm where it was initially identified in, the neurological disease has been creeping north ever since. It attacks the central nervous system and the infectious agent is too small to be detected by normal immune responses, so if contracted, it is always fatal. 

Though non-living, the misfolding protein called a prion can replicate itself, and does so reliably. Twenty-year Yellowstone Park employee Bob Lindstrom likens it to a “printer on repeat, continuing to print until it runs out of paper.” Lindstrom’s primary research during his career was using DNA analysis to test the Park’s buffalo for brucellosis in the early 2000s. He says that at the time, both brucellosis and CWD were taboo, and no one wanted to talk about them. But now that transmission is more than a threat and spread is inevitable, management agencies are being forced to think on their feet. 

 whitetail, deer, cwd, disease
Sampling a whitetail.

Since its origin, CWD has been detected in 24 states and two Canadian provinces. But mind you, those are only where tests are occurring. The regular incubation period for this is around 16 months. That means deer and elk could be walking around infected for a year and a half without showing symptoms.

The bottom line is, the disease is coming—it’s already here, and in much larger capacity than the public knows. FWP is taking steps to crack down on testing this hunting season, particularly in areas that have already shown positive cases. They’ve broken up the state into CWD Management Zones, the majority of which are in north and southeast Montana, with a parcel up near Libby. Any deer, elk, or moose harvested in these zones must not leave the area until it receives a negative test. That means the entire carcass: whole head, brain, and spinal column. 

The lengths to do this successfully seem drastic, especially considering the size of elk and moose, and the labor it takes to pack them out. But on the other hand, what else can you do? Currently, there are no cases in domestic cattle, but that’s not to say it isn’t plausible. Experimentally, the disease has already shown to replicate itself in livestock after direct injection.

Lindstrom says the time to solve this was years ago, but politics has a means of getting in the way of proactivity. And while humans differ on all levels, we at least have the ability to cooperate, even in the midst of a global pandemic. Widespread agreement on disease transmission is not something seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom. “There’s no social distancing with elk, deer, and moose,” Lindstrom says. “Once it gets in the herd, it’s over.”

Editor's note: Since the release of this article, FWP has updated their CWD management policy stating that no areas, including CWD Management Zones, require testing of carcasses. Though highly recommended, all testing will be done on a volunteer basis.