Missouri is testing deer for disease similar to mad cow illness has been found in west

November 12, 2001 St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Terry Ganey Jefferson
In the days and weeks ahead, Jeff Beringer will be studying the brain stems of some of the white-tailed deer killed by hunters during the firearms season that begins this weekend.

Beringer is a wildlife research biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. He will be on the lookout for signs of "chronic wasting disease," a malady that has affected some wild animal herds in the West but has yet to be discovered in Missouri. "We should be concerned about it," said Beringer, who works out of the department's research facility in Columbia. "We are taking steps and doing everything we can to keep it out of the state."

Chronic wasting disease is the wild animal version of "mad cow disease," which attacked Britain's cattle industry earlier this year. Formally known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, it is a fatal neurological disease of elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer. It has been detected in wild elk and deer in Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. It has also been discovered among captive deer and elk populations in those states and in Oklahoma, Montana and South Dakota.

Hunters in Missouri have been asked to report to the department any sick or dead deer they encounter - the first step in determining whether the disease has spread to Missouri.

"This is the first year that we have done monitoring like this on such a large scale," Beringer said.

The fear is not that humans will get sick from the disease. Beringer said that there is no credible evidence that humans can contract the disease. Cattle cannot get it either, unless it's injected into their heads.

The problem, according to Beringer, is the trouble that the disease would cause for the state's deer hunting program. Hunters are expected to kill 200,000 deer during this month's firearms season and spend millions of dollars in the process. If the disease comes to Missouri, it could dampen interest in deer hunting. Without hunters, Missouri would have to find other ways of managing its deer population, estimated at 1 million animals.

Chronic wasting disease was first discovered in Colorado in the 1960s. About 15 percent of the deer in Colorado and Wyoming now have it. The sale and transportation of captive elk have spread it to farms that raise elk. The existence of the disease was one of the reasons why the Conservation Commission decided this year against introducing elk hunting in Missouri.

The disease in its latter stages is identifiable by holes in the animal's brain. It takes years to develop, so it is seen only in adult animals. Deer that have contracted the disease are emaciated, seem disoriented and salivate excessively. Scientists don't know how it is spread.

Hunters who kill any deer with the symptoms have been asked to report the kill to the Conservation Department.

NOTES: Reporter Terry Ganey:; E-mail: tganey@post-dispatch.com; Phone: 573-635-6178

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