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Fish and Parks lab examines diseases from wildlife

Published on November 25, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on November 25, 2010 2:00PM


Bozeman Daily Chronicle via Associated Press

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) -- In a large, cool room with stainless-steel tables, Montana State University students in blue scrubs picked lymph nodes, brain stems and teeth out of deer and elk heads collected from hunters and game processors this year.

The students carefully placed the extracted parts into plastic bags. The remains of the heads were dumped into a plastic bin.

It's a procedure that has been repeated some 15,000 times since 1998 in the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Wildlife Laboratory, a two-story building tucked behind FWP's Region 3 office on South 19th Avenue.

The teeth are used determine the ungulate's age. The nodes and brain stems will be tested for chronic wasting disease, a disease that causes deer, elk and moose to loose weight and die.

"We haven't found it yet, but it's in Wyoming and South Dakota. It's only a matter of time," said Neil Anderson, the lab's supervisor.

In the next room, FWP veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey and lab technician Keri Carson catalogued small bags of blood, feces and organ samples from elk, bighorn sheep and antelope. Those samples could help them figure out how brucellosis, pneumonia and blue tongue are spreading and affecting the species.

The lab, easy to miss and staffed by only three full-time employees, has the huge mission of keeping a finger on the pulse of Montana's wildlife. If a herd of bighorn sheep dies off, if antelope stop reproducing, if a grizzly bear turns up dead in an irrigation ditch, Anderson and his team try to figure out what happened.

It's a job that is part medicine, part biology and part forensics. And as the Montana public becomes better educated about wildlife diseases, the lab's work has increased.

Anderson was hard pressed to name a species that hasn't been brought into the lab for study. On Nov. 4, a large, walk-in cooler held an owl and a black bear. Once, someone even brought in a dead squirrel to be examined, because of unusual boils on the rodent's legs, which turned out to be the work of botflies.

For now, Montana's squirrel population appears to be safe.

One day last summer, a partially decomposed adult grizzly bear hung upside down from its hind quarters in the lab's airy necropsy room.

The griz, a 576-pound male, had been found a few dozen yards off the road near Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone National Park. Park officials wanted to know what had killed the bear, so they sent the carcass to the FWP lab.

Enduring the stench of the partially rotten animal, Ramsey used a scalpel to remove the bear's hide, all the while looking for clues as to what might have caused the bear's death.

Endangered species like grizzly bears make up a lot of the lab's casework, in part because their death may have been due to criminal behavior.

But the lab's work isn't anything like what one sees on TV's "CSI."

Anderson recalled once getting a call that a grizzly had been found dead in an irrigation ditch and had to be examined.

"What they brought in was more a pile of maggots," he said.

Still, the lab workers ran tests and did an X-ray and figured out the grizzly had been shot.

Over the years, work like that has given biologists a clearer picture into the life and death of wild animals in Montana.

"Regardless of whether it's an endangered species or another species, it's an investigation to see what went on," Anderson said. "We let the evidence show what the problem is."

Not that the lab always gets to the bottom of a case.

The necropsy of the bear from Yellowstone that Ramsey studied a few months ago revealed no obvious clues to what happened. It hadn't been shot or hit by a car. But past that, the circumstances were unclear.

"Sometimes we get mysteries and we never get to solve them," she said.

The lab's second story is more of a museum than anything else.

Since it opened in the mid-1970s, the lab's workers have preserved the best bone and hide specimens for research. The lab holds the skeletons of almost every large mammal found in Montana and what Anderson believes is the biggest collection of grizzly skeletons in the world.

There's even a giraffe skull on one shelf, acquired in a swap by one of Anderson's predecessors.

There was a time when cataloguing the physical characteristics of animals brought in was a major part of the lab's work. But over the years, the lab's mission has changed as policymakers' and scientists' interests have shifted.

Over the 1990s, every black bear and mountain lion killed on Montana roads was brought into the lab for a necropsy -- essentially an autopsy for animals -- to determine the animal's age, diet, reproductive history and other baseline information. But that work stopped in 2001 to give the lab more time to work on wildlife diseases.

And, as the busy pace of one recent Thursday afternoon showed, monitoring wildlife disease is a full-time job.

Over the past year, Anderson and Ramsey have been heavily involved in monitoring the spread of pneumonia in western Montana's bighorn sheep, tramping across the rugged mountains around Anaconda and Philipsburg to gather samples from sick and dead animals.

They will also play a central role in the recently announced study of brucellosis in Montana elk. FWP will monitor 500 elk over five years to track the spread of the disease in the animals.

"We're getting more and more drawn into the animal health issues," he said.

"There's not a downtime anymore," Anderson said. "There used to be one in the summer. Now, if it's not sheep, it's a bear or something else. Folks are more attuned to sick animals."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.


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