TOPEKA, K.S. (KSNT) – Wildlife officials in several states are warning of new cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer, and issuing guidance for hunters. According to New York’s Department of Environmental Protection, CWD poses a serious threat to local white-tailed deer populations and the deer hunting tradition, even though it hasn’t been detected in the state since 2005.
But according to Shane Hesting, wildlife disease coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, the disease could threaten the future of one of the state’s most popular industries. “CWD has the potential to ruin hunting as we know it over time,” he said. “This is going to take a long time, decades. There are a lot of questions—whether we’re going to have localized extinction, which would be 50, 60 years from now. But, more likely, we’re going to see the older animals disappear from the population.”
CWD can be found in deer, elk, and moose. The disease is caused by prions, an infectious agent, spreading through bodily fluids or nose-to-nose contact, damaging portions of the animal’s brain once they’re infected. It typically causes gradual loss of body condition, like significant weight loss, behavioral changes, excessive salivation, and death.
Limited surveillance of the disease in deer dates back to the 1990s. But Hesting said that since then, the number of deer infected has grown “exponentially.” He said, “As it progresses and becomes entrenched in the population, the prevalence of CWD is going up, and we’re seeing more and more numbers of deer infected with the disease.”
Hesting said, to date, the state has sampled about 30,000 deer, with about 548 that have been positive. However, that number is increasing rapidly, and Kansas is not alone when it comes to CWD.
Tennessee officials recently identified the deadly condition in a 12th county. Officials have rolled out new regulations on the transport of carcasses, feeding, and deer mineral sites. They are also urging hunters not to eat meat from a sick deer.
In Louisiana, officials have created a contest with prizes of $500 or $1,000 in hopes of expanding their monitoring efforts. The rewards will go to hunters and taxidermists who submit deer samples with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
In Illinois, deer check stations in counties with CWD will once again be open during this year’s hunting season. The disease has also been detected in Arkansas, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania, among other states.
According to Hesting, hunters should also take steps to prevent the disease from spreading. “What we’re asking hunters to do is not move carcasses from where they kill animals,” he said. “Leave those carcasses where they kill animals, so they keep the prions in the infected areas. The prions are in the spinal cord, in the brain, and any nervous tissue. So, the more you can leave that behind and not take it to a new area, the more you can prevent CWD from moving faster than it will naturally.”
The prevalence of the disease has also led others to take extra precautions. Lisa Keith, director of David Traylor Zoo in Emporia, Kansas, said her zoo has put several measures in place to protect her mule deer population, which is already rare to see in her community.
“Mule Deer are popular just because it’s not something you’re going to see in Lyon County,” she said. “You’re going to find them more in Western Kansas or in the northern states. It’s fun for people to see.”
The zoo has a 30 to 60 day quarantine period in place for new animals, which also go through testing during that time before they’re introduced to the herd. Zookeepers keep all their tools within the exhibit, so no outside contaminants get in. In addition, they’ve put a barrier around the perimeter, so wild animals can’t come in contact with the deer.
“It’s just a very scary disease,” Keith said. “They stumble, they may act a little different than normal. Unfortunately, for the animal, it’s fatal.”
So far, the disease hasn’t jumped from deer to humans, but officials are urging hunters to test their kill when possible and to avoid eating any contaminated meat.