About a dozen people from across the state met Wednesday to talk about what state biologists say is virtually inevitable — the detection of chronic wasting disease in Montana’s wild elk, deer or moose populations.

“We need to be prepared for when we get that first hit,” said John Vore, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ game management bureau chief.

It was the first meeting of the agency’s citizen panel on chronic wasting disease, a panel made up of scientists, ranchers and conservation advocates from across Montana. Their work began with the start of a two-day meeting Wednesday morning at FWP’s Bozeman office.

Panel members will eventually get a chance to review the state’s initial management plans for the disease, but much of their first day was spent hearing from Wisconsin wildlife officials about their experiences with the disease and talking about the complicated science behind it.

Chronic wasting disease is an always-fatal neurological condition spread by small proteins called prions. Infected animals can pass the prions out through urine, feces, saliva, antler velvet and several other bodily fluids. Those prions can persist in soils and on plants for a long time — where other animals can pick them up.

It has been detected in 24 states, including all those surrounding Montana except Idaho. Detections have also been documented in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Montana detected the disease at a game farm near Philipsburg in the late 1990s, but it hasn’t been detected in the wild.

Jennifer Ramsey, a wildlife veterinarian for FWP, said where the disease came from isn’t well known. It was first discovered in a captive mule deer population in Colorado in 1967, and first found in free-ranging animals in the 1980s, but how it originated isn’t clear.

The condition affects elk, moose and deer. Animals can carry the disease for a long time before becoming infected, but once it turns infectious, it’s always fatal and has been known to cause significant population declines — declines of as much as 45 percent over 20 years have been documented.

There is no known risk to humans, but hunters who take infected animals are usually cautioned against eating the meat.

“I think it’s not a 100 percent closed case,” Ramsey said.

There is also no evidence that cattle can contract the disease in the wild. Cows have been infected with the disease in lab tests, as have a number of other animals, but there has not been a documented case of a cow picking the disease up from the environment.

What management actions will take place once the disease is found in Montana’s wildlife are not clear, but it could mean that wildlife officials have to kill a lot of animals. When the animals start dying, officials will be faced with another challenge.

“One of the questions we’re going to have to deal with is what are we going to do with these carcasses,” Ramsey said.

Infectious prions could persist on a decomposing carcass and potentially spread to other animals, something the state would like to prevent. Ramsey said there are a number of options, including incinerating carcasses, burying them in a sealed landfill or using an acid digester.

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

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