Bad brains? 

Deer and elk season is over and officials at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) say they didn’t bag one of the things researchers were hunting for: evidence of chronic wasting disease in the state’s wild game herds.

That’s good news, given the discovery of the brain malady in locales bordering Montana. Deer in Saskatchewan and elk in Wyoming have tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), a disorder that leaves holes in the brain tissue of animals and leads to death much like “mad cow” disease. Unlike “mad cow” or human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, scientists have never established a link between CWD and brain ailments like the one that claimed three hunters in Wisconsin between 1993 and 1999.

The three knew each other and often dined together on wild game. But after extensive studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their deaths remain a mystery.

“That’s what is so frightening about it—they don’t know,” says Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. Sharpe cautions that CWD has never been discovered in Montana’s wild herds of deer and elk, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not here.”

Since 1998, FWP researchers have tested more than 1,800 animals. This year, the state concentrated its search in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state, where animals with the condition may have migrated across the state line. Hunters stopping at FWP check stations were asked to either drop off the heads of what they killed, or allow FWP researchers to take a brain sample.

Leaving the head and antlers intact for trophy mounting, researchers use a “small spatula-like tool and go in and take a sample of the obex,” says FWP’s Tim Feldner. The obex, explains Feldner, is one of the first places evidence of CWD can be found.

On the FWP Web page, the department recommends that hunters avoid contact with brain and spinal fluid when cleaning their kills. The FWP goes on to note that no study has made a connection between eating wild game and contracting CWD.

Still, the question marks remain, like the one punctuating this headline in an August edition of Time magazine: “Deadly Feast: Can Venison Kill You?”

Last month, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco wondered if elk meat was to blame for the recent death of a Bozeman-area man. Gary Padgham, a 50-year-old hunter, succumbed to symptoms similar to “mad cow” and chronic wasting disease. UCSF is the leading research center for the study of diseases caused by malformed brain proteins called prions, which are not destroyed when meat is cooked and can be passed on to humans.

UCSF autopsied Padgham’s body, but the institution has released few details about his death.

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