Outdoors - Wildlife herds threatened by rare disease

November 18, 2002|by BILL ANDERSON / Staff Correspondent

One of the most important stories in wildlife management is the growing outbreak of Chronic Wasting Disease in wildlife herds around the country. The disease has been identified in wild deer and elk herds in Canada, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. It has also been confirmed in captive deer or sometimes elk in Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota.

As deer season approaches, many hunters are wondering if CWD is present in the deer herds of our area and if they should exercise special precautions in handling or consuming deer taken during the upcoming season. The following is a sampling of the latest information from state game officials and the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance

What is CWD?

CWD is described as a transmissible neurological disease in deer and elk that produces small lesions in the brains of animals infected. The disease has been found in the cervids (deer and elk) in many states as indicated previously.


Symptoms include loss of body condition, tremors, stumbling, excessive drooling and eventually death. Years can sometimes pass from the time the animal is infected until it is killed by the disease. It is similar to Mad Cow disease in cattle and Scrapie disease found in sheep.

How big is the outbreak?

CWD is still considered rare. The worst outbreak has been in Colorado. In checking animals bagged by hunters, officials have found CWD in less than 6 percent of deer and 1 percent of elk. But certain hotspot areas have shown as many as 30 percent of animals checked to be infected. In those areas, officials have implemented an aggressive program to kill as many deer as possible, which is the only way to combat the disease. CWD has not been confirmed in our region to date.

Is CWD transmissible to humans?

The experts respond to this question by saying that there is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted to humans or to any animal other than deer or elk. But, keep in mind, that this was also the original position on Mad Cow ... and we all know how that has turned out.

Officials say that as a general precaution, you should avoid contact with any animal that appears sick or exhibits unusual behavior.

The following are some of the basic rules on game handling that are recommended as general precautions:

  • Wear latex gloves when field dressing deer.

  • Minimize handling of brain tissue, spinal tissue or fluids

  • Bone out carcasses and avoid consuming brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen or lymph nodes of harvested animals

  • Do not handle or consume meat of wild game that appears sick.

For more information, visit

Other deer diseases confirmed recently

The Pennsylvania Game Commission announced last week that epizootic hemorrhagic disease has been confirmed in dead deer from Franklin Township, Greene County. EHD has also been confirmed this year in deer in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Game officials also want hunters to note that EHD is relatively common in whitetailed deer populations and is spread by the bite of insects called biting midges. In this region, EHD usually kills deer within five to 10 days, and is not spread from deer to deer by contact.

Officials point out that although EHD has symptoms that are similar to CWD, there is no relationship between the two and that local deer populations rebound quickly from an outbreak of EHD.

The experts say that there is no evidence that EHD can be passed to humans by touching or field dressing a deer, but hunters are advised to wear gloves when handling deer, and to wash hands and tools thoroughly. It is also a good idea to cook all wild game thoroughly before consuming.

Hemorrhagic disease is relatively common in our part of the country - particularly as deer populations have increased. CWD is another matter entirely and we can only hope that this terrible disease will be contained before it spreads to our region. If it does get here, the effect to the dense deer herds of this region could be devastating.

Bill Anderson writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Mail.

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