Until the first hard frost kills Montana’s mosquitoes, hunters should take precautions against insect bites and remember that West Nile Virus can infect humans as well as game animals.

That caution was reinforced last month with the announcement that West Nile was present in a pair of sage grouse found dead in southern Phillips County.

This is the first time Montana sage grouse have tested positive for the mosquito-borne disease. Last month, a dozen sage grouse in northeastern Wyoming tested positive for West Nile and four dead sage grouse in southern Alberta are being tested for the virus.

As hunters go afield for this month’s upland bird season, they should keep an eye out for dead or sick birds, and report any dead game birds they encounter.       

Since epidemiologists are aware that West Nile virus has been present across Montana since last summer, hunters don’t need to report dead crows, hawks or waterfowl. But because grouse were previously not known to be susceptible to the virus, FWP would like hunters to report dead sage grouse. Veterinarians don’t think that other game birds, including pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and turkeys, are susceptible to the virus, but if you find dead specimens of those species, report them to your local FWP office.

“We now know that West Nile virus is endemic to Montana,” says Keith Aune, supervisor of Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Wildlife Laboratory in Bozeman. “We’re interested in performing diagnostic examination of sick game birds if hunters, wardens or biologists encounter them in the field, no matter where in Montana.”

But Aune stresses that birds must be collected fresh or have been found dead within 24 hours of being submitted to wardens, biologists or FWP field offices. And carcasses should be fairly intact in order to extract suitable samples for testing. Decayed or emaciated birds are not suitable for testing, and hunters should not transport carcasses of birds that are not in season or would put them over the legal bag limit for that species. Hunter-shot birds will not be accepted, and test results will not be available to hunters who submit birds.

“It looks like we now have to learn to live with WNV in our state and we want to know as much as possible in terms of distribution and prevalence of the disease, as it affects game birds,” Aune says. West Nile virus can cause fever and fatigue and in its most severe form, can be fatal to humans and animals with weak immune systems.

Aune cautions that hunters should not shoot or eat sick birds, and he encourages hunters to use good hygiene when cleaning birds. Inspect birds for good physical condition, clean all blood and entrails and thoroughly cook game birds.

Montana’s upland bird hunting season opened Sept. 1, and because mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus are still quite active, hunters should take a few precautions when in the field.

First, they should apply insect repellent, especially if they’re hunting in moist areas or anywhere they’re likely to encounter mosquitoes. The best way to avoid contracting West Nile is to avoid being bitten by a mosquito. Hunters should also wear long-sleeved shirts and full-length pants, especially at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active.

Epidemiologists don’t think there is a risk of contracting West Nile virus by eating an infected grouse, but until researchers conclusively rule that out, hunters should clean and cook game meat thoroughly.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports there is no evidence that West Nile virus can be contracted by handling a diseased bird. Likewise, hunters shouldn’t worry about their dogs getting infected by retrieving a diseased bird.