Buck Deer File

A buck grazes in a field October 11, 2018 in Bozeman.

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Chronic wasting disease has been found for the first time in southwestern Montana.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced Wednesday morning that a buck white-tailed deer killed by a hunter in the Ruby Valley this year tested positive for the always-fatal neurological condition affecting deer, elk and moose.

The finding significantly expands the range in which state officials have found the disease, which had previously been found in northwest, northeast and southeastern Montana. It also comes the same year the disease was first found in wild moose and elk in Montana.

The deer was killed on private land about a mile west of the town of Sheridan, in Hunting District 322.

Dean Waltee, the FWP biologist for that area, said the white-tailed deer population in the Ruby Valley is dense and numerous. His most recent surveys — from 2018 and 2017 — indicated there were about 2,800 whitetails there.

He said he doesn’t yet know what the find will mean for the management of deer, elk and moose in the area, and that those talks will begin in the coming days.

“This is very much brand new to this part of the state,” Waltee said.

CWD attacks the central nervous system of infected elk, moose and deer. It’s carried by prions, tiny proteins animals shed through bodily fluids and antler velvet. It’s not known if the disease can infect humans, but public health officials recommend against eating meat from animals that test positive for the disease.

Since first being found in the wild in 2017 in Carbon County, FWP has been looking hard for the disease. Staffers have run specialized check stations that gather samples from hunter-harvested animals in certain parts of the state, and hunters have been encouraged to gather their own samples for testing.

More than 7,000 animals have been sampled for CWD statewide this year, according to FWP. Of those, 115 tested positive.

But no other detections in Montana have come close to the Ruby, a river valley northwest of the Gravelly Range that supports good populations of all the species affected by the disease.

“There hasn’t been any detections near there,” said Nick Gevock, the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “This is a sign chronic wasting disease could be anywhere in Montana, and likely is.”

Mark Deleray, FWP’s southwestern regional supervisor, said part of the reason there haven’t been other detections nearby may be that the state hasn’t conducted intensive sampling everywhere in the state. That work has really just started, he said.

“My expectation is with more intensive surveys we will likely find it in other places,” Deleray said.

Some of that effort was directed at Park County in 2017, with specialized check stations near Livingston and Gardiner. None of the animals sampled at those stations tested positive for the disease, though Deleray said the stations didn’t gather as many samples as they wanted.

He said that area will likely get a closer look in the future, as will other parts of the state as they try to see the full picture of CWD in Montana and decide what’s next.

“Other states have been living with this disease for decades,” Deleray said. “I would say what our steps are now is to fully understand the statewide distribution and then determine how best to manage and live with it.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.

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