Wildlife officials wrestle with best approach to handling CWD fears

Wildlife officials wrestle with best approach to handling CWD fears

June 18, 2001 The Associated Press

On one hand, state wildlife officials can't hide the possibility that chronic wasting disease - a variant of mad cow disease that infects deer and elk - might be making its way to Missouri.

But they also don't want to scare hunters out of the woods. That's why wildlife officials are stressing that the disease, unlike mad cow disease, does not appear to spread to humans.

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, attacks the brains of infected animals, causing them to display abnormal behavior, lose bodily functions and die.

"We don't suspect we have it. We can't say we don't have it," said Lonnie Hansen, a wildlife research biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We haven't detected it. We tell hunters it's a possibility."

First discovered in 1967 in Colorado, CWD has been found in wild mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk in regions of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Canada.

There is no evidence that CWD can infect people with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator], the human counterpart of mad cow disease. Hunters in the affected areas have shown no ill effects from eating deer meat, Hansen said.

However, he said, until more is known about the disease, wildlife officials are urging hunters to take some simple precautions - such as using rubber or plastic gloves when field dressing deer or elk, and not eating or handling the animal's brain or spinal cord.

Hansen also said hunters should not kill sick-looking deer, but should instead report the sighting to the conservation department.

CWD is believed to be spread through urine, feces and saliva. Captive animals are considered the prime carriers.

Hansen worries that hunters will be discouraged from killing wild deer, causing a population explosion.

"Hunting is very important for us, not only as recreation but for management," he said. "We need hunters."

An increase in deer population would carry a higher chance of deer-related auto accidents and crop damage.

Scientists are worried how the disease will affect deer in Midwest states, where their populations and density tend to be higher than in other states.

"We don't want to find out, to tell the truth," Hansen said. "It's something I'm very concerned about."

The conservation department will begin this fall testing killed deer for the disease.

Despite the fears, Hansen said he doesn't expect to find anything and believes hunters will hunt as usual.

"We don't want to give the hunters the impression they can get sick from eating deer meat. There's no reason to believe there's a human health threat," he said. "It should be a good deer season."

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