(Missoula Current) A deadly disease continues to spread among deer and elk in Montana and several other states. But perhaps biologists will eventually be able to fend off the disease, thanks to the recently passed congressional budget bill that will allocate $70 million a year for chronic wasting disease management and research.
A week ago, Congress included funding for the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act as part of the government’s massive $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill. On Dec. 23, the House voted 225 to 201 to pass the spending bill after the Senate did the same a day earlier by a vote of 68 to 29.
As chronic wasting disease continued to spread among deer and elk across states, hunters and conservationists lobbied for more funding to try to control the disease.
“As hunters, we celebrate this decisive action by our legislators to equip state and tribal agencies with the resources needed to control chronic wasting disease, while investing in targeted research to create stronger disease solutions,” said said Whit Fosburgh, CEO of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Both efforts are necessary to secure the future of our wild deer herds, our continued hunting opportunities and the strong impacts of hunter conservation funding.”
CWD is a malformed protein called a prion that can exist in the environment for years. If a deer, elk or moose comes into contact with it, the prion begins to affect proteins in the animal’s brain and nervous system. The disease worsens for about two years until the animal finally dies. Because it is not a bacteria or a virus, vaccines and other medications are unnecessary.
The first known case was diagnosed in 1967 at a wildlife facility in Colorado. Since then, it has spread to animals in 30 states and four Canadian provinces.
Montana had a case in 1998 at a captive elk farm near Philipsburg. This led Montana to ban game farms, and no infected wild animals were found in Montana until 2017, when some showed up in southeastern Montana. It is suspected that they migrated from Wyoming.
Since then, other infected deer have been discovered in the northeast and northwest parts of the state. It is suspected that the disease appeared around Libby due to a hunter transporting an infected deer from elsewhere. More recently, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reported infected animals near Belt northeast of Great Falls and near Gallatin Gateway west of Bozeman.
“I can tell you that there is definitely a high level of concern about chronic wasting disease within the hunting community,” Randy Newberg, a Bozeman hunting show host, told the Mountain Journal. “There are many reasons for this, including not only any potential risk to human health, but what it could mean for wildlife and hunting. My biggest concern is with members of the hunting community who deny the science. Any progress we make in developing a strategy to combat chronic wasting disease must be based on the best available science and unfortunately we do not yet have the full picture as there are still a number questions that science has yet to answer.
The CWD Research and Management Act could help answer these questions by allocating $70 million per year between management and research priorities for the next five years.
The $35 million for research would focus on: finding ways to effectively detect chronic wasting disease in live and slaughtered deer and the surrounding environment; learn how harvesting of deer and elk by hunters can be used to reduce the occurrence of chronic wasting disease; and identify factors that contribute to localized spread of disease, such as animal movement and scavenging.
For example, FWP is offering a late deer hunt in the lower Ruby River Valley in an attempt to reduce the number of animals with the disease. The disease was found in 45% of deer killed in the region by hunters during the regular season.
The remaining $35 million would be spent on disease management, including surveillance and testing, particularly in areas with the highest incidence of CWD or new outbreaks; CWD-free areas that are at greatest risk for CWD development; and jurisdictions demonstrating the greatest financial commitment to chronic wasting disease management, surveillance, investigation, and research.
The money could also be used to develop comprehensive policies and programs focused on the management of chronic wasting disease.
The bill also includes authorization for federal, state and tribal agencies to develop educational materials on chronic wasting disease.
The federal government has already provided money to deal with chronic wasting disease, but the $5-10 million allocated since 2020 hasn’t gone very far. A 2022 report from the University of Michigan showed that wildlife agencies in 16 states with CWD-infected animals spent an average of $773,000 on CWD surveillance, management, and education.
In 2020, FWP received $43,000 in federal funding for carcass disposal and communications efforts. Since the disease is steadily spreading throughout the state, it is likely that Montana will receive more funding from the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act than that.
. federal funding could help Montana FWP fight against disease deer