By KELLY BOSTIAN
Oklahoma is now the 30th state to document chronic wasting disease among its wild deer.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation reported Tuesday that the deer, spotted by a Texas County rancher near Optima, was behaving abnormally. Wildlife officials located the deer, and two sets of tests were completed to confirm CWD, according to department spokesman Micah Holmes.
Optima is a small town northeast of Guymon, roughly in the center of Texas County.
“The report is not surprising,” he said. “It’s found in every state surrounding us, including the two bordering the Panhandle. It’s not something we wanted to find, but it’s not a surprise, and we have a strategy to work through in the CWD Response Strategy.”
Last year a CWD-infected deer was reported in the state of Texas just over a mile south of the state line near Cimarron County.
The Wildlife Department activated the state’s response strategy, jointly produced with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry. Additional CWD testing during the 2022 hunting season in Cimmaron County did not find any CWD-positive deer. The Department has taken more than 10,000 samples for CWD testing statewide since 1999.
This week’s report marks the third instance of CWD documented in the state, but the previous two involved captive, farm-raised elk. The first was in Oklahoma County in 1998, and the next was in Lincoln County in 2019. Agriculture Dept. officials euthanized all the elk in those facilities, and they were no longer allowed to raise cervid species.
CWD is an always-fatal neurological disease that affects the brains of deer, elk, moose, and other cervid family members, creating holes resembling those in sponges.
The disease is problematic because the protein from bodily fluids that spreads the disease, called a prion, can exist in the soil for many years. Also, an animal can carry the disease for years without showing symptoms. There is no vaccine or treatment, and testing requires animals to be deceased.
Officials have not documented the transmission of CWD from wild animals to people but do not recommend people eat the meat of CWD-positive deer.
According to U.S. Geological Survey data, CWD was first identified in captive deer in a Colorado research facility in the late 1960s. It was found in wild deer in 1981 but remained limited to northern Colorado and southern Wyoming through the 1990s. It now exists in both captive and free-ranging herds in 30 states and three Canadian provinces.
Holmes said the rancher who reported the deer was driving his tractor when he saw the deer. While most adult deer run from the tractor, this one stumbled along, he said.
“We depend on landowners, hunters, all everyday Oklahomans to be our eyes and ears out there,” he said. “If they see something that doesn’t look normal, we want them to call us. Sometimes it may be nothing, but we appreciate knowing, and sometimes it is something important.”
Holmes said the timing and location of the report are fortunate in that the area is relatively sparsely populated, and hunting seasons are not open. Last year, the department supplied freezers in parts of Cimarron County and encouraged hunters to drop off deer skulls for testing.
“I imagine something like that could be on the table again this year,” he said.
Additional human health information relating to CWD is available from the U.S. Geological Survey at usgs.gov/centers/nwhc/science/chronic-wasting-disease#publications.
For more information on the disease, hunting regulations, and proper disposal of infected animals, check the Wildlife Department website at wildlifedepartment.com/hunting/resources/deer/cwd.
The Oklahoma Ecology Project is a nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting on Oklahoma’s conservation and environmental issues. Learn more at okecology.org