CWD map

Map of Wyoming showing the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk since 2000.

State officials are convening a citizen panel to talk about how they will respond to a fatal wildlife disease that biologists say will end up in Montana sooner or later.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is accepting applications for spots on a Citizen Advisory Panel on chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal neurological condition that can infect deer, elk and moose. The group will meet as many as six times throughout the next year to talk about the disease and the state’s potential response.

John Vore, FWP’s game management bureau chief, said they’ve already received 14 applications for a maximum of 12 spots. He said the agency will use the panel to flesh out its response and to help get the word out about what the disease means for the state.

“A lot of people in Montana aren’t aware of what CWD is and the threat it poses to wildlife,” Vore said. “We want folks to know that this is a very serious disease.”

A post on the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance’s website says the condition causes a “spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death.” There is no evidence that the disease poses a risk to people, the Alliance’s website says, though people are encouraged to not eat meat from infected animals. The site says livestock appear resistant to natural infection, but researchers are studying that further.

The condition can wipe out large portions of elk and deer herds, and it’s contagious. It’s passed through tiny proteins called prions, which animals release through mucus, urine and feces. Once released, the prions can remain infectious in soils for long periods.

CWD has been detected in herds across North America, including in Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Vore said it’s only a matter of time before it reaches Montana.

“We’ve had confirmed cases within a few miles of Montana,” he said. “It’s knocking at the door.”

FWP’s web posting seeking applications for the panel says the group will review FWP’s science and management plans for the disease. Vore said they have a draft plan, but that it isn’t ready to be released publicly.

He said management will likely include the killing of infected animals, potentially through a public hunt in a focused area. They would do this to collect brain samples to help them determine the prevalence of the disease and potentially to reduce herd density to slow the disease’s spread.

“We know we’re not going to be able to eradicate it,” Vore said, adding that some states have been able to slow the spread.

FWP is taking applications for the panel until March 15. The agency’s director will review the applications and select the panel by March 25, and the panel will have its first meeting on April 5 and 6 in Bozeman. The meetings will be open to the public and include a time for public comment.

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

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