Chronic Wasting Disease is a slow growing plague on America’s deer population which includes whitetails, mule deer, moose and others. CWD’s history dates back more than 50 years when it was first discovered in captive deer in Colorado and then spread to wild deer in the early 1980s.
For the most part diseases don’t just “start.” There has always been chicken pox, colds, flu and other diseases in humans. Thankfully, humans have learned to defeat these diseases or, for the most part, suppress them in the civilized world. Thankfully, disease-causing viruses, bacteria or other pathogens are usually very host-specific. Humans don’t get canine distemper. Dogs don’t catch the chicken pox. Only sheep and goats are susceptible to scrapies.
Or are they? CWD was initially found in deer held captive at a Colorado State University research facility. The dying and dead deer were discovered to have a brain disease very similar to scrapies in sheep, never before been found in deer. Looking into the history of the facility, it was learned the same enclosures where the deer where held was once used to confine and study scrapies-infected sheep. Somehow, the disease causing agent (called a prion) had mutated and became able to affect deer.
By the time this was learned some of the research deer had been released back into the wild. It was hoped the disease, now named Chronic Wasting Disease, would die out on its own. It didn’t and in less than a decade, CWD was firmly established in northeast Colorado — mostly in whitetail deer — and luckily, an area not heavily populated by whitetails. So the disease spread, but slowly.
CWD is an always fatal neurological disease which can affect white-tailed deer, moose and related species such as elk and caribou. The mutant prions responsible for CWD are usually passed from animal to animal by direct contact but prions can be shed in urine, feces and mucous and bind to soil particles where they can remain infectious for years. There is no treatment, vaccine or natural resistance, and once present in an area, CWD has been found to be impossible to eradicate.
For a number of years CWD was a localized problem in Colorado and a tiny portion of Wyoming. For the most part it was off the radar screen of resource management agencies in the rest of the country. Then in southern Wisconsin in 1999 deer in a captive, “game farm” herd tested positive for the disease and the following year, several wild deer in the vicinity of the infected game farm were found to have CWD.
The game farm connection was important. Every year or two new outbreaks of the disease was found, usually hundreds of miles distant from any known CWD hotspot. How could this be if the usual means of transmission was deer to deer contact or deer living in a contaminated area?
In nearly every case, new outbreaks are first discovered in captive herds or in deer living in the wild near captive herds. Buying and selling of domesticated deer and elk between deer and elk farms hundreds of miles apart is common.
From these “seeded” areas, the disease slowly creeps farther and farther across the landscape. Now, CWD has been found in 25 states and three Canadian provinces (as well as three countries overseas.) The CWD in Wisconsin expanded into northern Illinois and continues to expand.
There’s no cure, preventative or management measure to keep CWD from spreading once it’s detected in an area. Most states have enacted regulations on deer farmers and deer hunters returning from CWD positive states with deer meat, hides or antlers designed to keep their herds CWD free. Despite these regulations being to the best interest of both deer farmers and hunters (as well as the wild deer) compliance has not been total.
So far, Indiana has remained CWD free. Other than non-compliant commercial operations here in Indiana, the most likely chance of CWD to spread into our state is for infected animals from Illinois to move across the border, most likely into Newton or Lake County, or from Michigan into one of Indiana’s northern tier of counties. The DNR is monitoring these areas closely and you can help.
In our area, on weekends beginning Sept. 29, biologists will be stationed at Phil’s Truck Stop (U.S. 41 X S.R. 10, Lake Village) so hunters can voluntarily take their harvested deer to be sampled. (The test is not instantaneous.) Deer can also be tested at Willow Slough, LaSalle or Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Areas during business hours or by appointment.
Remember, CWD has never been found in Indiana. There’s never been an instance where any human has gotten sick from handling an infected deer or eating meat from a deer which was later found to be infected.