This could be the biggest deer story of the decade

September 22, 2002 The Press Republican by Dennis Aprill
"Take every story you've written about deer, and all of them combined can't compare to this."

These were the words of a Department of Environmental Conservation biologist friend in Albany, who wishes to remain anonymous, when he called me last week.

"But I've already done a couple of articles on chronic wasting disease," I told him.

"Yes, but you don't understand," he interrupted.

"That's not enough; the situation could get worse. It could very well get to New York. Then...."

So, I put aside my Quality Deer Management update planned for today's "Outdoors" and instead began doing more investigation into chronic wasting disease (CWD), an always fatal ailment that attacks members of the deer family. My new research took me down trails I had overlooked on the two previous articles, and some of my new findings are disturbing.

But, first a recap is needed on what CWD is and is not.

Chronic Wasting Disease

CWD attacks the brain, spinal cord and lymph nodes of members of the deer family. So far, only deer and elk have been reported with CWD. The first recorded cases were in Colorado in 1967, though there are suspicions among researchers it had been there longer than that, perhaps as far back as the 1950's.

CWD is caused by a mutant protein, Spongiform encephalopathies, which is not a living thing. It is, as such, called a prion. These mutants get other normal proteins to mimic their distorted shape.

Microbiologist Dr. Jose de Ondarza of the SUNY, Plattsburgh Biology Department describes the prion's attack this way: "Imagine a folding chair is set up and ready to sit on. Another folded chair hits against it and causes it to fold up, becoming useless. This chair, in turn, hits against another one, and so on.

That is what the malformed CWD prion does to normal proteins."

The CWD prion is almost impossible to destroy.

According to DEC Chief Wildlife Pathologist Ward Stone, "It takes about 1350 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy it; chlorine bleach, in a 50 percent solution, will also destroy it."

How is it spread?

It is not known exactly how CWD got to North America in the first place, but biologically it is similar to Mad Cow Disease in England. There is debate over whether Mad Cow's mutated prions are a result of environmental factors like pesticides or from another source.

In the U.S., we do know CWD is spread by a healthy deer or elk touching an infected animal's body fluids like mucus or saliva. It can also be transmitted by CWD contaminated food. If an animal infected with CWD dies, the prion doesn't necessarily disappear too, so it can be recycled by scavengers such as crows, coyotes and foxes or just be part of waste meat discarded by a hunter.

Controlling CWD

Today, Colorado wildlife biologists estimate 3-5 percent of deer in that state have CWD, about one percent of the elk. From Colorado, CWD has spread to Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico and, more importantly, east to Wisconsin, where deer densities are much higher than in Colorado.

In Wisconsin there is a major battle going on over how to eliminate or control CWD, and this debate could foreshadow what to expect if the disease hits New York State.

In southwestern Wisconsin in the Mt. Horeb area, CWD has been isolated in deer. In a 400 square mile area, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources plans to kill 25,000 deer in an effort to eradicate the disease. Already, opposition groups have formed; one is the Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter (CAIDS).

CAIDS, a coalition of landowners, hunters, non-hunters and other interested parties, believes, according to documents on its web site, that instead of a wide scale deer eradication program by government sharpshooters, the Wisconsin DNR should take a "go slow" policy that incorporates moderate deer herd reduction to lower deer densities, thus decreasing the chances of CWD spreading; controls on baiting and feeding deer, once again to stop clustering of deer; increased testing capabilities; and meaningful involvement of hunters, landowners and residents in the affected area.

In addition, CAIDS wants the Wisconsin DNR to give out more information on the disease and the extent of its spread, and to find out just when and how CWD got into that state.

If CWD ever gets to New York, you can bet any attempt at the shooting of tens of thousands of deer would draw opposition from every political spectrum. Yet, that may be the only way, at this time, to eliminate the disease.

CAIDS not only has recommendations, but also points the finger at some of the agencies and organizations it feels are responsible for CWD getting to Wisconsin: "It was the Department of Agriculture for its failure to test game preserve deer and elk, the US Department of Agriculture for sweeping the problem under the rug, the Quality Deer Management Association for endorsing supplemental feeding programs through feed that could have been tainted with CWD, and game farm associations for resisting testing of their deer."

Testing could be part of the problem

Part of the problem lies with the lack of effective testing. Science has not gotten to the point where a veterinarian can administer a simple CWD test to a live deer or elk. The animal, in most cases, must be dead so the brain and other tissues can be examined.

There is also a complicated tonsil test that can, on a limited basis, be done on live deer and elk. "Even so," says Ward Stone, who is shipping deer from New York for testing, "the results given are either that the animal has CWD or there is 'No Detection' that doesn't necessarily certify the deer is absolutely clean."

Stone believes that, if CWD does get to New York, the way to try to eliminate it is to start with the suspected core area and move outward destroying potentially infected deer. This is similar to the Wisconsin DNR proposal. Even by doing that, he admits, some CWD prions could remain on the ground and could be picked up by another group of deer that re-colonizes the area.

Strange coincidence?

While most scientists don't believe CWD has made the jump to humans as Mad Cow Disease did in England, there is an ongoing debate over the cause of death of three Wisconsin men. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Wayne Waterhouse and Roger Marten hunted extensively in areas of the west where CWD had been reported. They brought their trophies and meat home with them to Wisconsin, where they also hunted deer.

To celebrate their hunts, they had wild game dinners which they, a third person named James Botts, and others attended. In 1993, both Waterhouse and Marten died from diseases related to brain disorders. In 1999, Botts died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob (CJD) disease, the same brain disease that killed Waterhouse.

An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quotes Dennis Maki, a professor of medicine and an infectious disease expert at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as saying, "The odds are strongly against two men (with only the game dinners in common) dying of CJD...It is very suspicious."

Still, the Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta has decided the brain-destroying disease in those three did not come from CWD contaminated meat.

Is there a solution?

Where does all this leave us?

"So far as anyone knows," Stone says, "CWD is not in New York State." A collaborative effort at studying potential CWD is being undertaken by DEC, NYS Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and Veterinary Services and the New York State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell.

About 160 deer of the more than one million statewide have been tested, and no cases of Chronic Wasting Disease have been detected. As of August 6, DEC has banned the import of white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and European red deer to the state, and has prohibited the feeding of wild deer for any reason.

The Department of Agriculture and Markets has come under fire for not being more aggressive with testing captive deer on the 400 or so state deer farms, even if it means killing a deer from each and testing it.

Deer farms, many of which have fought against such tests, are suspected breeding grounds in CWD areas out west because of the concentration and close proximity of the deer. Also, it is very easy for one of these deer, through saliva, feces or even casual nose rubbing, to spread the disease to a wild population through fence row contact.

Will the public cooperate in the control of CWD?

Even with all the laws and supporting science behind it, the state may have difficulty enforcing its prohibition on supplemental feeding. Both Department of Agriculture and Markets and DEC Conservation Officer personnel are down in numbers. Clinton County, for example, has only two CO's to police the entire county and that includes part of Lake Champlain.

While CWD appears to be spreading, much like West Nile Virus has done, Ward Stone sees no need to panic.

"There have been no proven human deaths directly related to CWD," Stone says, "nor have there been cases of mountain lions or coyotes or crows getting the disease though they have probably eaten infected deer for decades. And hunters have eaten deer from known CWD areas for quite some time."

Stone does foresee the day when science and research will come up with an effective testing program for live animals.

How will news of CWD affect the public?

The biggest fear, and certainly a legitimate concern of that wildlife biologist whose phone call got me started on all this, is what will be the public's perception after CWD tops the national news stories.

Will there be panic, outcries to kill all deer in an infected area, or pleas to save the deer? When, if ever, proof that CWD can crossover to humans is found, will this have a negative effect on hunters, and if they abandon deer hunting, who will manage the massive state herds? Basically, the whole tradition of deer hunting may be on the line.

Out West only 3-5 percent of deer are CWD positive, which still leaves a lot of disease-free animals, but will that matter? Another important question to ask New York State bureaucrats is: What more should be done to ensure CWD doesn't get into our deer herd?

Now that I think about it, that biologist was probably right. CWD may be the most important deer story of this decade, and it is not over yet, not by a long shot.

Dennis Aprill's e-mail address is:

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