In this Chronicle file photo, a young deer prances through a snowy field in Bozeman.

State lawmakers are considering ordering a study of a neurological condition that could devastate populations of deer and elk and has already spread toward Montana on both its southern and northern borders.

Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, is the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 9, which would order a study of chronic wasting disease. Phillips told the Senate Fish and Game committee Tuesday that the condition, which is fatal for the animals it infects, is spreading throughout the region and is likely to turn up in Montana.

“For us today it’s important to note that the prevalence of chronic wasting disease in the Northern Rockies appears to be picking up speed,” Phillips said. “I think we appear to be approaching the inevitable.”

Chronic wasting disease causes brain degeneration and is always fatal. It can infect deer, elk and moose. Infected animals might not show symptoms for a long time, but are known to lose body weight.

John Vore, the game management bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the Chronicle that the disease acts slowly and can wipe out as much as 40 percent of herds over time.

It has never been found in the wild in Montana, but it was discovered in a captive elk herd near Philipsburg in the late 1990s. Animals in Wyoming, North Dakota and Canadian provinces north of Montana have been found to have the disease. In some cases, the disease has been found within 10 miles of the border, well within the migratory range of elk and deer.

Vore said it’s almost a certainty that the disease will show up in Montana eventually, saying the possibility is “not an ‘if’, it’s a ‘when.’”

The resolution asks for a study of the potential impacts of the disease to the animals that can catch it and to the state’s economy. It also says the study should identify ways the state can protect animals from the disease and ways the state can better keep an eye out for the condition.

Quentin Kujala, of FWP’s wildlife division, spoke in support of the resolution Tuesday. He told lawmakers that FWP started looking out for the disease in its wildlife populations in 1996, and that the work has continued in some capacity since then. FWP also has a plan for how it will respond once the disease is detected, and Kujala said they are hammering out the final details of that plan.

Other supporters of the resolution said it was time for the Legislature to take the threat of chronic wasting disease seriously, and that this study was a good way to stay ahead of it.

“This disease is probably the single biggest threat to our ungulate populations,” said Nick Gevock, the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “This could really devastate deer and elk populations.”

Others said a significant hit to the elk and deer populations could deliver a major blow to Montana’s outdoor economy. No one opposed the study resolution.

If passed, the study would be done during the break between legislative sessions and the results would be presented to the next Legislature.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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