BOZEMAN – Montana officials have found the state’s first suspected case of chronic wasting disease in wild elk.
A cow elk killed by a landowner northeast of Red Lodge earlier this month tested positive for exposure to the disease, making it a suspected case of the always-fatal neurological condition, according to Bob Gibson, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman.
Tissue from the animal is now off for more detailed testing to confirm the presence of the disease, with results expected within two or three weeks.
Gibson said suspected cases almost never turn up false, and that it’s highly likely the tests will confirm the elk had the disease.
It would be the first wild elk found with the disease.
Nick Gevock, the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said it illustrates that the disease is widespread. He added that the find is concerning because elk tend to congregate in large groups, a trait that makes them more susceptible to spreading CWD.
“This is bad,” Gevock said. “This is really bad.”
CWD attacks the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose, and it’s had significant impacts on wildlife populations across the country. It’s spread primarily through contact between animals.
There have been no reported cases of the disease being transmitted to people, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise against eating meat from animals that test positive for the condition.
Montana first dealt with CWD 20 years ago, when elk on a game farm near Philipsburg were found to have the condition. The farm’s herd was depopulated, according to FWP.
The disease was first found in the wild in Carbon County in 2017, when a mule deer killed southeast of Bridger tested positive. Since then, it’s turned up all over Montana, including along the Canadian border and in the state’s northwestern corner.
It’s not known exactly how the disease came to Montana, but most of the states and provinces had the disease before Montana’s first positive. The deer and elk in Carbon County are known to migrate back and forth across the Wyoming border, where herds have tested positive.
A moose in northwest Montana tested positive for the condition earlier this fall. With the suspected case in the elk, signs of the disease have been found in all the species affected by it.
Other test results released this week confirmed the disease in three more deer in south-central Montana – a mule deer in the Pryor Mountains, a whitetail northwest of Worden and another whitetail northeast of Silesia.
Gibson said the elk was killed about 5 or 6 miles northeast of Red Lodge, where it was making a living in pastures and farm fields. The animal wasn’t showing signs of disease, but it lived in an area where the disease had been found in deer. The landowner who shot it brought it in for sampling.
FWP has tried to track the disease with special check stations and by accepting samples from hunters. The state has restricted the movement of parts of elk, moose and deer killed in three management zones where the disease has been found.
The agency has also liberalized hunting seasons in areas with the disease, trying to thin out the herds to stop the spread.
Gibson said that approach may not apply to the elk around Red Lodge, which he said already have a liberal hunting season and aren’t terribly numerous.
“Where the elk was isn’t a real heavy concentration of elk,” Gibson said. “There’s not hundreds and hundreds of them.”
Gevock said it’s important that hunters are engaged in the management of the disease, especially as it spreads and the state gets a clearer picture of where it is.
“It’s rapidly showing up in deer in more and more places,” Gevock said. “Clearly, it’s been here for a while and it’s been spreading, and that’s unfortunate.”
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