The waiting began when the hunt was over.

Chad Carman and his father killed three mule deer last fall in eastern Montana. They were in an area where it was possible the deer were infected with chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal neurological condition that can also affect elk and moose. The disease has not been shown to infect humans, but federal health officials advise against eating the meat.

Neither man wanted to become Patient Zero, so they had Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks staffers take lymph nodes from their deer at an office in Ashland — a 50-minute drive out of their way.

The samples were sent to a lab at Colorado State University, where Montana has sent thousands of lymph nodes for CWD testing over the past few years. Turnaround times are long. Two, maybe three weeks in some cases. That creates an entirely new problem: What do you do with a deer you’re not sure you want to eat?

Carman, who recently moved to Helena from Missoula, took his deer to a meat processor, letting the business know it was getting tested for the disease. His father, who lives in Oklahoma, followed the requirements for transporting the deer across state lines — deboning it and removing the brains, head and carcass material. When he got home, he put it on ice. He put a knife he’d used to gut the animal in a bag and set it aside, not willing to touch it until they knew.

Then they waited.

“The thought process of not being able to eat the meat sucked,” Carman said. “I was actually checking the website daily to see if our numbers popped up.”

When the results arrived, they learned their deer had tested negative, meaning go ahead and feast. But the lag time wasn’t easy, all that time spent wondering if the hunt had been in vain.

The wait time could shorten dramatically next hunting season.

The Montana Department of Livestock’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Bozeman has purchased equipment to perform tests for CWD. If all goes according to plan, it will be up and running by next hunting season.

With a lab focused entirely on Montana samples, the expectation is results can be turned around in a matter of days, not weeks, said Greg Juda, the lab’s director.

“Once you get to the dissected tissue portion, it should be a relatively rapid turnaround,” Juda said.

In-state testing for the disease is a major step forward for Montana’s battle against CWD, which was first discovered in the wild here in 2017. Several other CWD-positive states already have their own labs, and some observers felt it was inevitable that Montana would need in-state testing.

“I think it’s huge,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. “As more and more people accept you’ll have to have your animals tested, this will just make it much more convenient and more timely.”

It comes after a record year for samples with nearly 7,000 submitted for testing. The growth — aided by FWP’s offer of free testing — led to a number of positive hits in new places, giving biologists more information about the scope of the disease and raising new questions about its future.

New tests

CWD is a slow-moving disease caused by misfolded prions. Prions are small proteins that exist in all mammals, and when one misfolds, it causes a chain reaction, leading others to misfold and ultimately killing tissue inside the animal, said Emily Almberg, FWP’s disease ecologist.

“You get neurologic symptoms and eventually the death of the animal,” Almberg said.

The disease has been found in more than two dozen states and in Canada. Once it arrives, it’s spread easily through bodily fluids — saliva, feces, urine, semen. Contaminated prions can also persist in the environment, living for a while in grass or elsewhere, offering an unseen mode of transmission.

There’s no cure, no magic solution. What wildlife managers can do is track the disease’s spread and design hunting regulations meant to limit its prevalence — the amount of animals it infects in a certain population. FWP has held special management hunts in infected areas with those goals in mind.

Disease testing provides the data for those decisions. Samples can’t be taken from live animals, so hunters are the most reliable suppliers of testable lymph nodes.

A couple years after its first detection of CWD in the wild, Montana is almost ready to test its own samples. The new gear lives in two separate rooms at the diagnostic lab in the Marsh Labs complex off 19th Avenue.

The equipment will let the lab perform two tests. One closet-sized room holds the equipment for an ELISA test — enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. That method is also used for things like rabies, and Juda thinks the CWD version will prove to be analogous to other tests the lab already does.

Down the hall is the other machine, an immunohistochemical stainer. That machine is used for the second test method, a more in-depth analysis used to confirm positive tests. It’s also required by state or federal regulations in certain situations, like for captive animals.

Juda said the lab received federal money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Animal Health Lab Network to pay for the machines. The ELISA equipment cost about $60,000. The other machine cost about $100,000.

Not everything is in place just yet. Juda said the lab is waiting on another piece of equipment for the ELISA. Then, there’s training to be done and a federal proficiency test before it’s all ready to go.

The additional workload won’t be insignificant for the busy and aging lab, which state officials eventually want to replace and combine with a few other other state labs. It already works closely with FWP in a number of areas and shares its large incinerator, an effective way to get rid of animal parts.

Staff at the diagnostic lab conduct upward of 210,000 tests a year. Brucellosis testing is the top job there now, with more than 80,000 tests a year.

Statewide, just more than 11,000 samples in all have been sent for CWD testing over the past three years, suggesting the work won’t rival brucellosis. But Steve Smith, the lab’s chief veterinary pathologist, said because of the statewide interest, he expects CWD testing will grow.

“It has the potential that it could become one of the higher volume tests that we do,” Smith said.

More samples, more work

The work of coordinating and tracking Montana’s CWD samples happens across the street from the diagnostic lab, in FWP’s wildlife health lab. Almberg works there alongside FWP’s chief veterinarian, Jennifer Ramsey, and two technicians — one of whom is entirely focused on CWD.

They handle dead animals from across the state in their lab, sent to them for necropsies. Recent visitors include a muskrat and a blind deer.

Ramsey, who has worked there for more than a decade, said the discovery of CWD in the wild forced them to shift gears.

“A lot more of our time and resources had to go to focus on CWD,” she said.

Their role is managing the surveillance program — the sampling and testing that goes on in all corners of the state, with certain priority sampling zones each year. They manage a large team of technicians trained to pull lymph nodes and keep track of the samples sent to the lab.

Final numbers released last week show FWP submitted 6,977 samples to Colorado State in 2019. Of those, 142 turned up positive. Though still a small fraction of statewide deer harvest, the submission of nearly 7,000 samples was a big jump over 2018, when about 1,900 samples were submitted.

The growth in samples can be attributed to FWP’s decision to offer free testing statewide, covering the cost of the tests as long as hunters paid for shipping. In the two previous years, that was only available in priority zones.

The move paid off. Almberg said free testing turned up eight positive tests in five new hunting districts, samples they would not have gathered otherwise.

FWP plans to continue free testing, and officials expect an increase in the number of samples again next year. That will likely foist more work upon the agency’s staff, which Almberg said may mean they need more people in regional offices or in the field to collect and send samples.

Some efforts to reduce the workload have been made. Hunters are allowed to collect and send in their own samples, and FWP even made a video showing how its done. About 15% of samples submitted last year were collected by hunters themselves. Almberg said they’ve talked about involving taxidermists and meat processors, too.

Bigger details still need to be worked out before next hunting season, like how they’ll deal with the new parts of Montana that tested positive. Southwestern Montana is scheduled to be a priority sampling area next year, and there’s sure to be a focus on the Ruby Valley, where two white-tailed deer tested positive last year.

“The challenge is to still try and figure out how we’re going to be even more proactive now that we’ve found these positives and change management,” Almberg said.

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

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