Whitetail Deer

A whitetail deer walks through the woods along Springhill Road Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Bozeman.

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Montana officials are preparing to handle more tissue samples for chronic wasting disease than ever before this fall as the state works to track the spread of the always-fatal condition.

Emily Almberg, a disease ecologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the agency has seen massive growth in the number of samples every year since the disease was first found in the wild in 2017.

Last year, the agency handled more than 7,000 samples. This year, she said, they’re preparing for as many as 14,000.

“We may not hit that,” Almberg said. “Every year we’ve been seeing a doubling, and now we’ve got big swaths of the state that are positive ... We’re just expecting the demand to continue to grow.”

The season hasn’t ramped up just yet — most samples come from animals killed by hunters in the general rifle season — but the FWP is working to make sure it’s ready. The agency is hiring 30 technicians to help run sampling stations in areas near known positive tests and to help out at regional offices.

It’s also making plans for gathering more samples during the general rifle season from a few places near known positive tests — in the northwest near Libby and much of southeastern and southwestern Montana.

Meanwhile, a lab in Bozeman is inching closer to being able to conduct testing for the disease.

Greg Juda, director of the Montana Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Bozeman, told the state’s Environmental Quality Council this past week that equipment for CWD testing had been installed and technicians were performing proficiency testing. He expects to receive results from the proficiency tests soon. Once the lab is told it passed those tests, it can begin CWD testing.

That would mark a major milestone in the state’s fight against the disease, which affects the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose. The disease has not been shown to affect humans, but federal health officials advise against eating the meat of infected animals.

After it was found in the wild in 2017, Montana beefed up its efforts to track the disease. Now samples from every corner of the state have tested positive. This spring, a white-tailed deer in the Springhill area north of Bozeman tested positive — a first for the Gallatin Valley.

Montana’s tissue samples have typically been tested at Colorado State University in the past few years. With approval for the diagnostic lab in Bozeman, FWP would look to shift the bulk of that work there. Almberg said FWP expects to use Colorado State for at least another two weeks, and that any overflow samples toward the end of the hunting season would likely be sent there.

Testing requires a lymph node from a dead animal, so FWP relies on hunters to either stop at sampling stations in its surveillance areas or to collect and send in the samples on their own.

The surveillance areas for this fall will include areas around Libby and much of southeastern and southwestern Montana. The work in southwestern Montana will cover the area around the positive test north of Bozeman and over in the Ruby Valley, which saw its first positive test last winter.

A few other changes are coming for hunters this year. FWP is urging hunters to dispose of their animals properly to avoid leaving contaminated carcass materials out on the landscape. Some body parts can be a vector for the disease.

Almberg said that means disposing of the head and spinal column in a landfill.

The agency will also ask hunters who donate animals they’ve killed to food banks or elsewhere to have it tested before donating.

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

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