Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a debilitating, fatal disease that attacks the central nervous system of whitetail deer, mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk, actually resulting in small holes developing in their brains. CWD was first diagnosed in captive animals in Colorado and Wyoming in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, and was seen in free ranging animals in the early 1980’s. Kansas’s fish and game officials have been testing hunter-harvested Kansas deer since 1996, and during the 2005 firearms season, the first documented case was discovered in a whitetail doe taken near the Cheyenne County town of St. Francis, in the northwestern corner of the state. Later that year KDWPT staff harvested 50 deer, 29 mule deer and 21 whitetails within a 15-mile radius of where the infected doe was shot. Tissue samples from each deer were collected at a field lab and sent to KSU for analysis, and all 50 dear tested negative for CWD. To date over 28,000 tissue samples have been tested, but sadly 216 Kansas deer have tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease, with most found in Decatur, Rawlins, Sheridan and Norton counties in Northwestern Kansas. In 2018 more than 350 tissue samples were tested from hunter-harvested Kansas deer, with the target area being the southwestern part of the state. Thirty-seven of those deer tested positive for CWD. Positive tests came from the counties of Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Norton, Phillips, Smith, Thomas, Sheridan, Gove, Rooks, Scott, Lane, Hamilton, Hodgeman, Ford, and Stafford, and sadly the counties of Haskell, Edwards, Pratt, Osborne and Reno were added to the list last year, showing that the disease is spreading south and east.
CWD appears to target animals older than I year, and it can be several months or up to two years before outward symptoms become apparent. Animals in advanced stages of the disease will seem listless, may walk in repetitive patterns with their head lowered, will probably exhibit excessive salivation and a blank expression, and will look to be in very poor overall health; in short, they will appear zombie-like. If you witness deer or elk with any of these symptoms, report it to a conservation officer immediately!
Despite ongoing research, there is currently no known cure for Chronic Wasting Disease, and quite frankly I don’t have a clue how a cure would ever be administered if one were found. To date, the only tool to prevent it’s spread is to restrict the transport of deer carcasses from areas where CWD is known to exist. Once an infective particle (a “miss-folded” protein called a prion) is deposited in the environment, either from an infected carcass or from a live infected animal, it may remain capable of infecting a healthy animal for decades. Other diseases of this same group are scrapie in sheep and goats and mad cow disease in cattle.
Although CWD is always fatal to infected deer or elk, humans have never been known to contract the disease. Cattle and other domestic livestock appear to be naturally resistant to CWD. Common sense should dictate not to consume any part of a known infected animal. Special precautions are also urged for hunters harvesting deer or elk from an area known to have produced an infected animal. All meat from these carcasses should be boned-out, and none of the brain, spinal cord tissue, eyes, spleen or lymph nodes should be consumed. Extra care should also be taken to thoroughly wash and disinfect hands and butchering equipment. Carcass waste should be left or buried on the property where the deer was taken or double-bagged and taken to a landfill. Online electronic check -in is available to allow hunters to transport boned-out deer harvested with an antlerless permit.
I like to end these columns with some snappy, witty comments, and I could get a lot of traction from the title Zombie Deer, especially near Halloween. But I can’t bring myself to go there this time, given the implications of Chronic Wasting Disease on the Kansas deer population and on Kansas deer hunting. Let’s pray that God allows research to find something to conquer this disease…. Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors.
Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected]