Nevada officials remain on lookout for any signs of chronic wasting disease

Nevada officials remain on lookout for any signs of chronic wasting disease

August 20, 2001 New York Observer by John Kimak

Despite the lack of evidence that chronic wasting disease is present in Nevada mule deer and elk herds, officials of the Nevada Division of Wildlife have announced their intention to continue monitoring animals.

'During the upcoming hunting season, the division will be putting increased emphasis on gathering tissue samples from elk herds around the state, but samples will also be collected from deer as well,' said Geoff Schneider, NDOW spokesman.

Schneider noted that during the past two hunting seasons, tissue samples were collected from 303 mule deer and 25 elk at check stations, in the field and at meat processors. All were examined by the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory and found to be free of the disease. Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy in a class of diseases that includes scrapie in sheep, bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Additionally, it is always fatal within a few months for the affected deer or elk.

However, researchers have been unable to prove the disease can be transmitted to human beings or cattle. But they also have no evidence to show that it cannot be transmitted. Consequently, they have taken the cautious approach and are asking hunters to follow a list of guidelines that are similar in every state that has confirmed the presence of chronic wasting disease.

In general, hunters are being advised to refrain from shooting deer or elk that exhibit abnormal behavior, wear protective latex gloves while field dressing the animal, minimize contact with the brain when antlers are being removed and refrain from eating deer or elk brains or spinal cord.

Chronic wasting disease first showed up in Colorado in the late '60s as a mystery disease at a research facility near Fort Collins. A few deer began to lose weight and waste away, even though they were being fed a diet that should have kept them vigorous and healthy. Other symptoms also set in. The deer were drinking incessantly, urinating often, dripping saliva, and standing listlessly with their heads down and ears drooping.

At first, researchers suspected the problem was a virus or bacteria, but exhaustive checks failed to turn up anything. It was not until 1978 that the first conclusive evidence of the problem was made clear. Beth Williams, a researcher now with the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, could see tiny holes in brain tissue being examined under high magnification. In addition to looking like a sponge, some brain cells had patches of protein buildup between them and degeneration of others, she reported. These findings, of course, were instrumental in finally leading to understanding of the problem.

Over the years, chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in Wyoming, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Montana, Nebraska and Saskatchewan, Canada. In most states, the disease has been confined to captive animals, mostly elk, at private animal reserves or ranches. But Nebraska recently announced the discovery of two confirmed cases in free-roaming wild deer. Conversely, South Dakota officials have expressed the belief that the disease has finally been eradicated in their state.

Utah has also considered the problem of chronic wasting disease to be a serious issue, and extensive measures were taken during the past two years to learn if it is present in the Beehive State. After checking nearly 800 animals, both deer and elk, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food declared that Utah is free of chronic wasting disease. Officials will now scale down their effort to 'targeted sampling,' but will still continue close monitoring of animals being raised at private elk reserves.

In addition to chronic wasting disease, deer and elk can get other debilitating diseases that make them unfit for human consumption. The obvious question, of course, is what should a hunter do if the animal he has bagged appears to be diseased or has other health concerns?

That is no problem, according to NDOW, because provisions of the Nevada Administrative Code (502.321) enable a hunter to receive a replacement tag that will be good for the remainder of the hunt or valid the next similar season. Simply present the properly tagged animal to any NDOW biologist, game warden or state-licensed veterinarian. After confirmation of a problem, a replacement tag will be provided at no cost to the hunter. ...

John Kimak's Outdoors column appears Sundays. He can be reached at

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