Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A deadly disease continues to spread among deer and elk in Montana and several other states. But maybe biologists can eventually fend off the disease, thanks to the recently passed Congressional budget bill, which will allocate $70 million annually to the management and research of chronic wasting disease.

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 225-201 to pass the spending bill after the Senate did the same one day earlier by a vote of 68-29.

As CWD has continued to spread in deer and elk throughout the states, hunters and conservationists have been pushing for more funding to try to gain control of the disease.

“As hunters, we celebrate this decisive action by our lawmakers to infuse state and Tribal agencies with the resources needed to control CWD, while investing in targeted research to create stronger disease solutions,” said Whit Fosburgh, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership CEO. “Both efforts are necessary to ensure the future of our wild deer herds, our continued hunting opportunities, and the strong impacts of hunter-driven 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 in contact with it, the prion begins to affect the proteins in the animal’s brain and nervous system. The disease worsens for about two years until the animal finally dies. Because it’s not a bacteria or virus, vaccines and other medicines are useless.

The first known case was diagnosed in 1967 at a Colorado wildlife facility. Since then, it’s spread to animals in 30 states and four Canadian provinces.

Montana had one case in 1998 at a captive elk farm near Philipsburg. That led to Montana outlawing game farms, and no infected wild animals were found in Montana until 2017 when some turned up in southeast Montana. It’s suspected that they migrated from Wyoming.

Since then, more infected deer have been discovered in the northeast and northwest parts of the state. It's suspected that the disease showed up around Libby due to a hunter transporting an infected deer from elsewhere. Most recently, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has reported infected animals near Belt northeast of Great Falls and near Gallatin Gateway west of Bozeman.

“I can tell you there’s definitely a high level of concern about CWD within the hunting community,” Randy Newberg, a hunting show host from Bozeman, told the Mountain Journal. “There are a lot of reasons for that, including not only any potential risk to human health but what it could mean for wildlife and for hunting. My biggest worry involves those within the hunting community who are science deniers. Any progress we make in developing a strategy for confronting CWD must be based on the best available science and, unfortunately, we don’t have a wholly complete picture yet because there are still a number of questions science hasn’t yet answered.”

The CWD Research and Management Act could help answer those questions by splitting $70 million a year between management and research priorities for the next five years.
The $35 million going toward research would focus on: finding ways to effectively detect CWD in live and harvested deer and the surrounding environment; learning how hunter harvest of deer and elk can be used to reduce CWD occurrence; and identifying what factors contribute to localized disease spread, such as animal movement and scavenging.
For example, FWP is offering a late deer hunt in the lower Ruby River valley to try to reduce the number of animals with the disease. The disease has been found in 45% of the deer killed in the area by hunters during the regular season.
 The other $35 million would be spent on management of the disease, including surveillance and testing, particularly in areas with the highest incidence or new outbreaks of CWD; areas free of CWD that face the greatest risk of CWD emerging; and jurisdictions demonstrating the greatest financial commitment to managing, monitoring, surveying, and researching CWD.

The money could also go toward developing comprehensive policies and programs focused on CWD management.
The bill also includes authorization for federal, state, and Tribal agencies to develop educational materials on CWD.

The federal government has previously provided money to deal with CWD, but the $5 million to $10 million allocated since 2020 didn’t go 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 spreading steadily across the state, it’s likely Montana will receive more than that from the CWD Research and Management Act funds.