Claims of deformity should get a closer look, panel says

A local group of health and medical professionals has recommended further investigation of reported wildlife deformities in the Bitterroot Valley.

The group was formed last June after a scientific report commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that it is highly unlikely that the types of malformations described in white-tailed deer would result from exposure to chemical pesticides. Reports of the anomalies had come from longtime Stevensville wildlife rehabilitator Judy Hoy, who began to notice deformed deer in 1996.

At a meeting last June, members of local, state and federal government agencies and concerned citizens met to discuss the report by Anne Fairbrother, a veterinarian and toxicology specialist from Oregon.

Fairbrother's report did not acknowledge the presence of wildlife deformities in the Bitterroot. Among those who attended the meeting to discuss the report, a difference of opinion developed about the legitimacy of Hoy's claims.

In order to evaluate Hoy's fragmented evidence, and try to determine whether it warranted follow-up investigation, the study group was formed.

The group was made up of William Hadlow, retired veterinary pathologist from the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton; Donald Maclean, retired physician; Linda Dworak, veterinarian; Ira Holt, Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association; Judy Smith, molecular biologist; and Ted Kerstetter, who has a Ph.D. in animal physiology.

For five months, the group reviewed existing data, observed white-tailed deer specimens collected by Hoy, researched related literature and conducted interviews.

"We agreed that obviously, Judy Hoy's observations are real, but what it all means is hard to tell," the group's report says.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks examined about 30 deer carcasses from the Bitterroot in 1996 and 1997 and found no significant problems. But the study group concluded that FWP's study "lacked a coordinated sample collection strategy" and analysis.

In its written report, issued in April, the group recommends further investigation of possible wildlife abnormalities.

"We support the establishment of a wildlife health team to design the research strategy, coordinate data collection, hire consultants, solicit funding, review findings and communicate with the public," the group's report says.

The study group suggested that members of this "wildlife health cooperative" include representatives from FWP, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ravalli County Public Health Board, Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, an epidemiologist, local veterinary scientist, and one or more citizens from the Bitterroot Valley.

In addition, the group recommends sampling for toxic chemicals in the environment.

So far, no action has been taken on the group's recommendations. But representatives of several agencies and organizations the group suggested do the follow-up investigation said they haven't dismissed the idea.

Sharon Browder, acting manager of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agency that commissioned Fairbrother's report - said she would be amenable to the study group's suggestions.

"I think the major player in this would have to be Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks," Browder said. "It is their trust resource."

FWP officials have discussed the study group's recommendations, said John Firebaugh, the department's regional wildlife manager in Missoula. He said officials would like to meet with the group.

"We'd like to re-examine with them the 30 or so deer the department looked at down there three years ago and concluded there was not a problem," Firebaugh said. "I think it's a little premature to say that what's going on down there - if anything is going on - that the cause is pesticides. I think that's putting the cart before the horse. But we're not closing the door by any means."

Ira Holt of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, who was a member of the study group, said he'd be willing to be a part of a follow-up investigation.

Holt suggested that FWP or the Metcalf Refuge set up a hunter check station with trained observers to look at white-tailed deer harvested in the Bitterroot Valley.

Metcalf officials have offered to conduct a check of whitetails harvested on the refuge, Browder said.

The problem with a hunter check station, said Firebaugh, is that the animals brought in usually are field-dressed, which can damage evidence of possible abnormalities.

Ravalli County Commissioner Alan Thompson said the county health board is taking the study group's recommendations "under advisement."

The health board plans to discuss the study group's report at its next meeting Thursday, May 17, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Ravalli County Courthouse in Hamilton.

If the health board decides to petition an agency to conduct studies of toxic chemicals in the environment in the Bitterroot Valley, Thompson said, the county commissioners would back the request.

Browder said study group should be commended for its hard work.

"I'd really like to thank the members of the study group," she said. "They volunteered so many hours on this issue and produced a really unbiased look at it."

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at dgadbow@missoulian.com.

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