KALISPELL — Neil Anderson found a day this past week to sneak out into the woods and try to find a deer to fill his freezer.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional wildlife manager said the conditions in the woods right now certainly do favor the deer.
“We’ve had rain on top of the snow,” Anderson said. “It’s like walking on eggshells. It makes it pretty tough to sneak up on any animals when you’re hunting in the kind of cover that we have here in northwestern Montana.”
The fact that conditions are challenging in that part of the state might drive serious deer hunters south, which makes Anderson a bit nervous considering the fact that chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in two deer harvested on the state’s southern border this past week.
“That’s a real concern of ours,” Anderson said. “CWD could end up here if someone kills an infected deer, brings it back here and then dumps the carcass in the woods.
“All the research shows that once the disease gets into the soil, cervids like deer have a chance to consume it,” he said. “And, from there, you have a new start for the disease in a new population.”
CWD is a chronic neurological disease that causes a spongy degeneration of the brains of deer, elk and moose that eventually results in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and finally, death.
“It’s a pretty interesting and unusual disease,” Anderson said. “It’s not a bacteria or a virus. It’s a protein called a prion that’s really hardy. We all knew that Montana would get it eventually.”
The disease has been detected in more than 20 states.
It belongs to a group of diseases that have affected domestic sheep and goats for two centuries. The mad cow disease that infected nearly 200,000 cattle in the United Kingdom and forced authorities to slaughter more than 4 million is caused by the same abnormal cellular protein that’s most commonly found in the central nervous system and in lymphoid tissue.
The infection caused by the prion results in the conversion of normal cellular proteins to the abnormal form.
While there’s been no link between CWD and the human version of the disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, health and wildlife officials encourage people not to consume the meat and to be careful during the processing of any animal harvested in areas known to be infected with the disease.
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Anderson said hunters need to be careful to ensure that they don’t bring the disease into new areas, similar to efforts to contain the spread of invasive mussels in the state.
“We want to stress that it’s important that hunters take proper care of their carcasses,” he said. “Don’t just throw them away in the woods somewhere. People need to put them into a landfill. It’s especially important for hunters who harvest an animal outside of the area.”
Once the disease is detected in an area, the only thing wildlife managers can do to slow the spread is reduce the population of animals in the area.
“That can result in the loss of hunting opportunities over time,” Anderson said. “The disease can pop up in places that are quite a distance from where it’s been detected earlier. While some of that could be the result of animals moving around, there is a concern that hunters could also play a role.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be that guy who brings CWD to northwestern Montana,” he said.
Opportunities for harvesting a buck deer in northwestern Montana may be improving with the onset of the annual rut.
Overall numbers and the percentage of hunters with game have been below last year’s numbers at the five game check stations in Region 1 for the fourth weekend of the season.
While the number of elk checked through the stations was the same as last year at 58, both mule and whitetail deer numbers are down. As of last weekend, 366 whitetail bucks and 26 mule deer have been checked in through the stations. Last year, the numbers stood at 483 whitetail and 109 mule deer.
“Stalking conditions are challenging right now,” Anderson said. “The snow conditions make for noisy walking, but we are starting to see some older-age bucks come through the check stations.”
Hunters have reported seeing bucks sparring and rubbing their antlers on trees, which is indicative of the onset of the rut. During the rut, buck deer search for does, making them more vulnerable to hunters.
From Nov. 20-26, hunters can harvest antlerless whitetail deer on private property with a general deer license. Corporate timber lands are not open to the antlerless hunt. Apprentice and youth hunters under the age of 16 can harvest antlerless whitetail deer all season long.