Chronic wasting disease threatens deer population, hunting season

Deer hunting season is here and it’s off to a shaky start.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been found in a number of does and deer in at least three different states – Wyoming, Montana and Michigan.

The disease, which is caused by a deformed, self-multiplying protein, eats holes in the deer’s brain and can cause emaciation, lack of coordination or fear of humans as well as excessive drooling, drinking and urination.

Contagious deer can be asymptomatic for years, but still spread the disease through direct contact with other deer or by infecting the soil with their urine, feces or carcasses. The infected soil can remain toxic to white-tail deer for more than a decade, which is why both hunters and the Game and Fish Department are concerned about the spread of the disease.

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“I don’t think you can print the words that ran through my head,” Chad Stewart, Department of Natural Resources deer specialist told The Detroit News. “The long-term impact is that it leads to population declines that are essentially irreversible.”

The disease can also affect elk and moose, however it is unknown if it can harm humans. Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends people do not consume meat that is infected or assumed to be infected. It is also suggested that you minimize the handling of the brain and spinal tissues.

With more deer testing positive for CWD in different states, the population decimating disease is thought to be on the move, and it is frightening hunters – and threatening the hunting industry’s billions of dollars.

“There’s already been a decline in hunting, and now add CWD into it,” Erik Schnell, president of the Quality Deer Management Association’s Michigan chapter told The Detroit News. “That adds a fear element into what has always in the past been a joyous movement.

But, unfortunately, this problem doesn’t have a quick fix.

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“It’s a very serious issue, currently and into the future,” said Josh Halyard, regional director of the Quality Deer Management Association in Michigan and Indiana.

“This is just not something that can be dealt with quickly. It’s going to take time, a lot of time, and you don’t see results until you’re down the road,” Halyard said.

Though less than one in 1,000 white-tail deer tested positive for CWD, the DNR reports, other states are still experiencing a slow spread.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department confirmed that a deer in a location that has never before had the disease has tested positive. The department continues to ask hunters to bring their game in to get tested, as is recommended by the CDC.

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Wyoming is especially concerned. In the past 15 years, it has had its mule deer population cut in half by the disease, with nearly 30 percent of bucks testing positive – up from 8-10 percent.

Last year, Arkansas was hit hard with an estimated one out of three white-tailed bucks and one out of five does infected.

Currently, states are placing more regulations on hunters to try and slow or stop the spread, like banning the use of bait so there are less deer congregating in potentially infected areas.

“The fewer the deer, the slower the spread,” state wildlife veterinarian Kelly Straka said.

States are also mandating CWD checks for all killed deer.

Chronic wasting disease is not the only thing negatively affecting deer this hunting season. An epizootic hemorrhagic disease outbreak killed hundreds of deer in Tennessee before the season started.