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Fire May Be the Only Remedy for a Plague Killing Deer and Elk

Mark D. Zabel wants to set some fires.

Dr. Zabel and his colleagues are developing plans to burn plots of National Park Service land in Arkansas and Colorado. If the experiments turn out as the researchers hope, they will spare some elk and deer a gruesome death.

Across a growing swath of North America, these animals are dying from a mysterious disorder called chronic wasting disease. It’s caused not by a virus or bacterium, but a deformed protein called a prion.

When ingested, prions force normal proteins in the animal’s body to become deformed as well. Over the course of months, prions can gradually wreck the animal’s nervous system, ultimately killing it.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of chronic wasting disease. In the September issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, Dr. Zabel, an immunologist at Colorado State University, and his former graduate student Aimee Ortega survey what scientists have learned about the slow-spreading plague.

It makes for ominous reading. “There’s a lot that we still don’t know and don’t understand about the disease,” Dr. Zabel said in an interview.

Once chronic wasting disease gets a foothold, it can spread relentlessly. It’s now documented in 24 states, and continues to expand into new ranges. In some herds, as many as half of the animals carry prions.

It’s only been in recent years that scientists have gained crucial clues to how the disease spreads. Direct contact, it turns out, isn’t the only way that the prions get from one animal to another.

Sick animals and cadavers spread prions across the landscape. Plants and soil may remain coated with deformed proteins for years, perhaps even decades. Dr. Zabel now suspects that the only way to rid the land of them is to set controlled fires.

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