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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Chronic wasting disease monitoring continues; now in five bordering states

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has not been found in free-ranging deer or elk in Kentucky, but the fatal, neurological disease that affects members of the deer family (cervids), has been confirmed in 12 more states in the U.S. in the last decade.

CWD was first found in North America in mule deer at a research facility in Northern Colorado in 1967, and has spread to free-ranging and captive populations of cervids in 21 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, according to information posted on the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance website.

Since 2002, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) has tested over 25,000 white-tailed deer and elk for CWD. The test results have all been negative, but the disease has been found in five of seven states that border Kentucky — Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia.

In the terminal stages of infection, deer show signs of progressive weight loss, excessive salivation and urination. Other noticeable changes include listlessness, lowering of the head, and blank facial expression (Photo Provided)

In the terminal stages of infection, deer show signs of progressive weight loss, excessive salivation and urination. Other noticeable changes include listlessness, lowering of the head, and blank facial expression (Photo Provided)

“We’re testing about 1,000 deer and elk a year now,” said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for KDFWR. “Our testing is more targeted and efficient. We’re picking up road kills, and efforts are focused on older animals or ones that are acting sick.”

Deer and elk with CWD often exhibit behavior that is symptomatic of two other more common diseases that affect the deer family — brain worm in elk and epizootic hemorrhagic disease in deer.

In the mid-2000s, when federal funds were available, about 4,000 Kentucky deer and elk were tested for CWD, including heads and spinal columns donated by hunters.

For detailed information on CWD outbreaks and monitoring, visit the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance website at: http://www.cwd-info.org/.

How CWD is Spread

CWD affects members of the deer family (cervids), mainly white-tailed deer, mule deer, and elk, but also can affect moose. In April a story posted on the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance website said that the Norwegian Veterinary Institute has diagnosed CWD in a free-ranging reindeer from the Nordfjella population in South-Norway. This is the first detection of CWD in Europe, and the first in reindeer worldwide.

Researchers believe that CWD has been spread in North America by the transportation of infected deer or elk between captive herds, the escape of infected deer or elk from captive herd facilities, the interaction of wild cervids with captive animals, and the transportation of the carcasses of infected animals to states where CWD is not present.

Anyone who hunts in a CWD-infected state or Canadian province may not bring a deer or elk carcass into Kentucky unless the brain and spinal column have been removed.

Deer and elk must be properly butchered. Meat must be boned-out, or quartered, with no part of the head or spine attached. Hunters may only bring back antlers if they are attached to a cleaned and disinfected skull plate. Cleaned hides and finished taxidermy products are also admissible for transportation into Kentucky.

Signs of the Disease

Deer or elk harboring CWD may not show any signs of the disease for the first 18 months, but death follows normally within a year of the onset of symptoms.

There is currently no cure for animals that contact the disease, and no vaccine to prevent animals from contracting the disease. There is also no evidence to suggest CWD poses a risk for humans or livestock.

The best way to definitely diagnose the disease is by examination of the animal’s brain stem and lymph node tissue, postmortem, although a live animal test (tonsillar biopsy sample) was successful in detecting CWD in a Texas deer in April.

CWD belongs to a group of diseases called Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE), which includes scrapie in sheep and goats, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (commonly known as “mad cow” disease) in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

It is suspected that CWD is caused by abnormal proteins called prions, which attack neurons in the brain, causing degeneration. CWD is transmitted through direct animal-to-animal contact and indirectly through environmental contamination from feces, urine, saliva, and infected carcasses. CWD prions can survive in deer parts after the animal has died, so deer and elk heads and spinal columns are a potential hazard if discarded.

In the terminal stages of infection, deer show signs of progressive weight loss, excessive salivation and urination, and increased water intake. Other noticeable changes include decreased interactions with other animals, listlessness, lowering of the head, blank facial expression, and repetitive walking in set patterns. In elk, hyper-excitability and nervousness may be observed.

Economic Impact of CWD

States are not only concerned about the decline of their deer herds, which took decades to establish at a cost in the millions of dollars, but the economic impact CWD could have on hunting and related tourism.

In Tennessee, one of only two states bordering Kentucky where CWD has not been found, a study by the University of Tennessee Department of Agricultural Economics projected that “an outbreak of CMD in Tennessee would cause an estimated $46.3 million decline in direct total industry output and a loss of 892 jobs.”

Rural economies are hit the hardest by outbreaks of CWD. There’s less travel and reduced expenditures on fuel, hunting gear, food and lodging. Fewer licenses are sold so wildlife agency budgets are impacted.

The spillover effects of these declines on the general economy could also mean lower land values and the loss of hunting-related businesses.


Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune and KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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