Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) – Part 2

Jim Low shares, “With CWD, infection rates will soar and deer populations will decline until – like 80 years ago – white-tailed deer sightings are so rare, they make newspaper headlines.” Joe Forma Photo

Arkansas and Missouri News

  • Fenced Enclosure Deer add to Cause
  • Spread by Infected Proteins called Prions
  • Eradication Not Possible 
  • Healthy Deer Could Become RARE
Jim Low shares, “With CWD, infection rates will soar and deer populations will decline until – like 80 years ago – white-tailed deer sightings are so rare, they make newspaper headlines.”  Joe Forma Photo
Jim Low shares, “With CWD, infection rates will soar and deer populations will decline until – like 80 years ago – white-tailed deer sightings are so rare, they make newspaper headlines.” Joe Forma Photo

By Jim Low

I hate to think about how the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) will change the rich deer hunting tradition of Missouri.  This month’s issue of Arkansas Wildlife, published by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC), has an excellent article documenting the dawn of a new era in deer management for our neighbor to the south.  The article, titled “Charting New Territory,” describes the discovery of a new outbreak of chronic wasting disease (CWD) just across the border from southwest Missouri.

The basic facts are extremely worrisome.  After confirming CWD in one elk and one deer in Newton County, Ark., earlier this year, AGFC tested 256 more deer and elk.  They found CWD in 23 percent of the animals.  That is an extremely high infection rate for a newly discovered outbreak, indicating the disease has been in the area for several years.  The infection rate among Arkansas bucks 2.5 years and older was 43 percent, further evidence that the outbreak began years ago.  AGFC expanded its sampling area to a 10-county area around Newton County during this year’s firearms deer season.  So far, that effort has detected 136 more infected deer and elk.  All 10 counties had CWD-infected deer. Three of those counties border Missouri.

The situation isn’t quite as dire in Missouri – yet.  Since 2003, MDC has tested tens of thousands of deer and turned up only 11 cases of CWD in high-fence breeding and shooting operations and 33 cases in free-ranging deer.  This is a good-news/bad-news situation.  The good news is that Missouri seems to be ahead of the game compared to Arkansas.  The bad news is that we already have three separate CWD infection zones and an extremely hot CWD outbreak on our southern border.

The Arkansas Wildlife article goes on to explain measures that the AGFC plans to take to manage the disease.  Notice that I said “manage.” Eradication is not possible.  Neither is containment.  The infectious agents that cause CWD – abnormal proteins called “prions” – are easily spread.  Infected deer can pass the disease to other deer by direct contact.  They also shed prions in their urine, feces and saliva.  Once in the soil, prions remain infectious virtually forever.  And unlike blue tongue and other hemorrhagic diseases, no deer has or can develop immunity to CWD.  It is 100 percent fatal.

Even worse, CWD prions are practically impossible to destroy.  You can’t kill them, because they aren’t alive.  They’re just naked strands of protein, but despite their simplicity, prions are remarkably durable.  So far, the only known way of destroying them is to incinerate contaminated soil at 900 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter for at least four hours.  Even if an outbreak were confined to a small area – say one county – you could never treat all the soil in this way.  And even if you could, you would still have infected deer roaming the landscape re-contaminating the soil, not to mention leaving the area and spreading the disease.

The only “good” thing about CWD is that it develops slowly, typically taking 18 months to cause symptoms – lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss, excessive thirst, salivation and urination and drooping head and ears.  Slow development is a two-edged sword, however.  CWD doesn’t cause rapid, massive die-offs like those you see with blue tongue and other hemorrhagic diseases, so outbreaks can go unnoticed for years.  Meanwhile, infected deer continue to shed prions, spreading the disease.  By the time the slow-moving outbreak puts a serious dent in deer numbers, CWD is so prevalent that effective management is impossible.

To prevent this, monitoring and early detection are critical.  MDC’s CWD monitoring program took a more aggressive turn this year, gathering 19,200 tissue samples from deer killed on opening weekend in the state’s three CWD Management Zones.  This enormous effort – which required nearly every full-time MDC employee to pull off – will yield much more detailed and reliable data about the extent of Missouri’s CWD problem and the disease’s prevalence in the management zones.  Unfortunately, planning for the stepped-up sampling was well under way before Arkansas learned the extent of its CWD outbreak.  Hunters in southwest Missouri were asked to bring deer for testing, but a full-blown effort must wait until next year.

Hunters and conservation agencies in Missouri and Arkansas will be dealing with CWD from now on.  Whether either state will be able to muster the resources and the political will be to deal with the root of the problem – interstate transportation of deer and elk – remains to be seen.  As long as keeping deer in fenced enclosures and shipping them elsewhere continues to generate huge profits for deer-breeding and canned-hunting operations, CWD-infected deer will continue to crisscross North America, igniting dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of new outbreaks.  Endemic areas will merge.

Infection rates will soar, and deer populations will decline until – like 80 years ago – white-tailed deer sightings are so rare, they make newspaper headlines. Missouri hunters and others who simply love seeing deer, need to think long and hard about what all this means for them. Then they need to think about what they can do to help.

One thing you can do is talk to your state legislators about bolstering MDC’s authority to regulate captive deer.  For a more permanent solution, we might consider amending the state’s constitution, as they have done twice before in conservation matters, and putting an end to high-fence hunting operations.

What’s at stake is no less than the future of deer and deer hunting in Missouri.