Deer with CWD

A white-tailed deer showing symptoms of chronic wasting disease, including drooling, is shown in this undated file photo. 

Colorado Division of Wildlife

News broke this fall that chronic wasting disease, which affects deer, elk and moose, had been detected in free-ranging deer in Montana for the first time. The discovery garnered considerable media coverage and dire predictions for hunting in Montana.

Overlooked is this question: What if the sky isn’t falling?

Last year, state authorities in Arkansas detected CWD for the first time. One detection soon turned into dozens, and close to 100 animals were eventually found with CWD.

Experts believe that CWD actually existed quietly for years in Arkansas before it happened to be detected.

Could that be the case in Montana as well?

CWD was first detected in Colorado in a research facility in the 1960s. It was then found in Wyoming in 1985. Free-ranging animals spread it through the state. (While deer farms are often unfairly blamed for CWD, Wyoming has none.)

Montana state authorities also weren’t doing a lot of testing for CWD. The state was only testing around 550 deer per year for CWD, according to public records. That’s a fraction of 1 percent of our deer and elk population.

It’s certainly possible, if not quite likely, that CWD has been in Montana for years and no one noticed. And yet, hunting opportunities have still been plenty. Just as they were in Arkansas.

We shouldn’t expect CWD to affect hunting opportunities in the future, either. Researchers in Wisconsin examined whether CWD affected deer mortality and found “no evidence that CWD was substantially increasing mortality rates.” Researchers in Colorado found that CWD effects on mule deer were so small that they could be omitted as a factor.

Hunting may fluctuate from year to year depending on factors like wolves and weather, but CWD isn’t something to worry about.

What about the health aspect?

It’s understandable that people are concerned. However, there is no evidence that CWD has ever affected a person, according to health authorities. And it may never. The World Health Organization points out that scrapie (a cousin of CWD that affects sheep) has never jumped the species barrier to affect humans, and we’ve been farming sheep and eating mutton for centuries. Similarly, a 13-year experiment in Wyoming exposed cows to CWD-positive areas, but none became infected.

Obviously, don’t harvest animals that look sick. And any hunter can get his harvest tested for CWD, just to be sure. But worrying about CWD is like distressing over getting struck by lightning.

So what should be done?

Montanans deserve to know which areas have CWD. That means the state needs to do more testing (which it should have been doing all along). This will give a better idea of where CWD is and is not.

The state can also contribute to research into developing a vaccine for CWD. This may not ever be practical to use broadly in the wild, but it will allow us to stamp out CWD in closed environments, such as research facilities or farms.

In the long run, CWD will likely continue to slowly spread over time. We’ll continue to hear about it for the foreseeable future. But armed with the facts, hunters might wonder if CWD isn’t the equivalent of a tree falling in the forest.

Kim Kafka lives in Havre and is the former president of the North American Elk Breeders Association.

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