HELENA – Ideas on how to deal with chronic wasting disease in Montana range from doing nothing to killing every deer or elk within 80 square miles of where the first diseased animal is found, a new management study shows.

The plans, analyzed in an environmental study that went to printers Monday, look at both preventing chronic wasting in Montana and responding when, and if, prevention efforts fail. “We do expect to find it at some point,” said Tim Feldner, head of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park’s commercial wildlife permitting department and author of the study. “This year? Sometime in the next five years? We just don’t know.”

Chronic wasting is a brain-killing disease of deer and elk related to mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and a similar brain-wasting disease in people. It is always fatal and thought to be associated with misshapen proteins called prions that clump up in the brains of victims.

Chronic wasting first showed up at a Colorado research facility in the 1960s and has since been found in wild and game farm animals in a host of states – from New York to New Mexico. So far, no wild animals in Montana have come down with the disease, although it did show up in 1998 and 1999 in elk at a game farm near Philipsburg. Those animals were all destroyed and their carcasses burned.

Montana voters in 2000 outlawed any new game farms, in part to control the spread of the disease.

The disease has since been found in wild animals within 100 to 150 miles of the state line in Saskatchewan, Canada, Wyoming and South Dakota.

“It’s definitely close to our border,” Feldner said.

The study looked at six different ways to deal with the disease, ranging from doing nothing to complete local extermination.

The most relaxed plan calls for doing nothing other than surveillance in parts of the state most likely to see the first chronic wasting case. When an animal tests positive for the disease, the plan calls again for doing nothing.

A more aggressive plan would stiffen laws dealing with feeding and baiting deer and elk, do away with rehabilitating orphaned deer and elk fawns, and ban imports of certain parts of deer and elk hunted outside the state. The plan also calls for mandating that any deer and elk carcasses be disposed of in certain kinds of landfills.

If the disease shows up, the plan calls for testing animals in a designated “high-risk zone” near where the first case is found. All animals hunted in the zone would be tested for chronic wasting. If, during the testing period, more than 5 percent of the animals tested have chronic wasting, half of all the animals in the area would be destroyed.

The most aggressive plan calls for killing every deer and elk within at least 80 square miles around where the first positive case is found.

The study also looked at what the disease may mean to the state’s hunting economy and what, if any, threats chronic wasting may pose for people who handle or eat contaminated meat.

So far, no evidence links eating meat from animals infected with chronic wasting to the brain wasting disease in people. But the study suggests people may choose not to hunt in certain parts of the state or the whole state out of fear.

Controlling the disease is important, Feldner said. Estimates in the study show that if nothing is done to control the spread of chronic wasting, the disease will eventually wipe out entire herds of deer and elk. Fifty years after the disease shows up, about half of all the deer and elk in the state could be gone. A century later, more than 90 percent, if not all, Montana’s deer and elk could be dead.

FWP is now waiting for comments from the public about the plan before making a final decision. The deadline for comments is Sept. 23, and the agency hopes to have a final decision made by at least the end of hunting season, Feldner said.

“If, by chance, we did find chronic wasting this year, that’s going to be the prime season to do something about it,” he said. “We want to have something in place.”

You’re invited

Fish, Wildlife and Parks is hosting seven public meetings to discuss the chronic wasting disease study and hear from the public. All meetings will be at the agency’s regional headquarters offices between 7 and 9 p.m. on these dates:

  • Aug. 16 – Missoula

  • Aug. 23 – Bozeman

  • Aug. 25 – Great Falls

  • Sept. 1 – Kalispell

  • Sept. 13 – Billings

  • Sept. 14 – Miles City

  • Sept. 15 – Glasgow