HELENA — None of the more than 1,000 samples of deer and elk tissue so far tested this fall for the deadly chronic wasting disease came back positive, wildlife officials say.
Hunters submitted some 1,600 samples of deer and elk tissue this past hunting season, said Ron Aasheim of the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. So far, 1,030 have been processed, and all have come back negative. The rest are still being processed.
‘‘It’s certainly good news,” he said. ‘‘But as we’ve said in the past, we certainly expect that at some point, we’re going to find (chronic wasting disease) in Montana. It surrounds us on three sides.”
Chronic wasting is a mysterious brain-wasting disease of deer and elk similar to scrapie in sheep and ‘‘mad cow disease” or bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cows. The infectious disease is related to an inexplicably malformed brain protein, not a bacteria or virus. Once confined to pockets of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska, the disease is now widespread across much of the West and Midwest. Close to home, the disease has been found in Canadian provinces bordering Montana, in Wyoming and South Dakota. It has not been found in North Dakota and Idaho.
Chronic wasting has never been found in the wild in Montana, but animals at a game farm near Philipsburg did turn up with the disease in 1999. In 1998, the state started a surveillance program to look for the disease more closely, Aasheim said.
Hunters are asked to leave deer and elk heads at game stations and drop buckets around the state so workers can prepare samples of the tissue to be sent to an out-of-state lab for testing. Aasheim said he didn’t know exactly how the deer and elk heads were ultimately disposed of.
This year, samples came from all parts of the state, but officials tried to get more samples in the areas where the disease is most likely to show up: along borders with states or provinces known to have the disease and around Philipsburg, where the disease was found before.
Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said he was glad to see the disease has so far left Montana alone. Sharpe attributed the lack of chronic wasting to several factors, including a 2000 voter-passed initiative that banned new game farms, and the expansion of existing game farms, as well as fees for shooting penned deer and elk. Sharpe also praised the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department for its ‘‘progressive” stance on the disease.
‘‘We’re lucky in many regards,” Sharpe said. ‘‘It confirms for us that the regulations put in place on game farms was a wise move,”
Like Aasheim, Sharpe said he believes ‘‘it’s a matter of when” the disease shows up here, particularly along Montana’s border with Canada where a number of game farms with infected animals in the past are located.
Although Sharpe said the state is ‘‘doing just about everything we can to prevent the disease from coming to Montana,” he questioned why the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission killed a proposed rule that would limit the import of deer and elk carcasses and other body parts from states that have the disease.
The state of North Dakota has a similar ban.
‘‘We think that is one more step the agency should consider,” he said.