TOPEKA (KSNT) — Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is a deadly neurological disease spreading quickly among deer in Kansas.
According to Shane Hesting, wildlife disease coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, the disease could threaten the future of one of the state’s most popular industries.
“CWD has the potential to ruin hunting as we know it over time,” Hesting said. “This is going to take a long time…decades. There are a lot of questions whether we’re going to have localized extinction, which would be 50, 60 years from now. But, more likely, we’re going to see the older animals disappear from the population.”
Chronic wasting disease can be found in deer, elk and moose. The disease is caused by prions, an infectious agent spreading through bodily fluids or nose-to-nose contact, damaging portions of the animal’s brain once they’re infected. It typically causes gradual loss of body condition, like significant weight loss, behavioral changes, excessive salivation, and death.
Limited surveillance of the disease in deer dates back to the 1990s. But Hesting said since then, the number of deer infected has grown “exponentially.”
“As it progresses and becomes entrenched in the population, the prevalence of CWD is going up, and we’re seeing more and more numbers of deer infected with the disease,” Hesting said.
Hesting said to date the state’s sampled about 30,000 deer, with about 548 that have been positive. However, that number is increasing rapidly.
According to Hesting, hunters should also take steps to prevent the disease from spreading.
“What we’re asking hunters to do is not move carcasses from where they kill animals,” Hesting said. “Leave those carcasses where they kill animals, so they keep the prions in the infected areas. The prions are in the spinal cord, in the brain, and any nervous tissue. So, the more you can leave that behind and not take it to a new area, the more you can prevent CWD from moving faster than it will naturally.”
The prevalence of the disease has also led others to take extra precautions.
Lisa Keith, director of David Traylor Zoo in Emporia, said her zoo’s put several measures in place to protect her mule deer population, which is already rare to see in her community.
“Mule deer are popular just because it’s not something you’re going to see in Lyon County,” she said. “You’re going to find them more in western Kansas or in the northern states. It’s fun for people to see.”
The zoo has a 30-to-60 day quarantine period in place for new animals, which also go through testing during that time before they’re introduced to the herd. Zookeepers keep all their tools within the exhibit, so no outside contaminants get in. In addition, they’ve put a barrier around the perimeter, so wild animals can’t come in contact with the deer.
“It’s just a very scary disease. They stumble, they may act a little different than normal. Unfortunately, for the animal, it’s fatal,” Keith said.
TEST YOUR MEAT, BEFORE YOU EAT
Prevention efforts are successfully keeping the disease from spreading, but in western Kansas, it poses a much greater threat.
Hesting said the department of Wildlife and Parks is using a network of taxidermists across the state to gather lymph nodes, vital parts of the animal’s immune system, for testing.
“We use a network of taxidermists, because they get older animals,” Hesting said. “The incubation time for CWD is 18 months, so the older animals is where you’ll find the disease. Taxidermists get a lot of animals, so we get a sample size of about 450 every year.”
Jamie Reneberg, owner of Tipi Taxidermy in Kensington, has been working with the state for about eight years, collecting samples from hundreds of deer that come in.
“I want to see these deer survive and do well and they have, but if there’s anything that’s going to affect that, then we want to be a part of it, and we want to know why,” Reneberg said.
Reneberg’s brings in about 100 or more animals a year for sampling, and he encourages hunters to make sure they get their deer tested. While, there’s been no known case of humans getting infected, the CDC recommends not eating animals infected with chronic wasting disease.
“One of the things that we’re seeing is a lot of the hunters are not eating the deer as much. Their concerns are keeping them from doing that,” Reneberg said. “They recommend that you don’t consume the deer if it is positive. It’s important to get your deer tested. That way you know for sure.”
In the meantime, Hesting said the state still has a “robust” deer population that hunters should take advantage of.
“We need hunters to continue to hunt. If you’re hunting in an area where there’s CWD, we recommend getting that deer tested. There’s a lot of unanswered questions and it’s better to err on the side of caution.”
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks is offering free testing for CWD for the 2021-2022 deer hunting season.