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Deadly chronic wasting disease discovered in Oklahoma’s wild deer herd

Deadly chronic wasting disease discovered in Oklahoma’s wild deer herd

Wildlife officials working to stop spread, urge hunters to drop off meat samples for testing

By Ed Godfrey

Oklahoma Voice

The first appearance of chronic wasting disease in Oklahoma’s wild, free-ranging deer population is threatening the health of its herd.

“We’ve only had two confirmed cases in the state, one in Texas (County) and one in Woodward County,” said Dallas Barber, big game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

“It’s a disease that is very slow to develop, but once it gets its hooks into an area it is something that is not possible to eradicate,” he said.

Oklahoma has an estimated 750,000 wild deer.

Even though it’s only been confirmed in two deer in the northwest Oklahoma, Rod Hall, state veterinarian with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, thinks it’s likely more deer in Oklahoma have chronic wasting disease.

“I suspect we have it in other parts of the state, too,” Hall said. “They just haven’t found it.”

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a slow-progressing, neurological disease that is almost always fatal in deer, elk, moose and other members of the deer family. CWD is related to “mad cow disease” and attacks the brain. Animals can be infected and spread the disease long before they show symptoms.

It is often called zombie deer disease, although Hall said scientists don’t like to call it that because the description instills fear in people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that deer taken by hunters from an area where chronic wasting disease is present be tested before consuming the meat. There is no evidence the disease can be transmitted from deer and elk to humans or livestock.

Oklahoma’s most popular hunting season, the 16-day deer rifle season, opened Nov. 18.

Deer hunting is big business in Oklahoma with a total economic impact of $600 million, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The agency earned more than $7 million from the sale of deer licenses alone the last fiscal year, and that doesn’t include the sale of general hunting licenses which are also required.

Last season, Oklahoma hunters killed a record 134,158 deer during all hunting seasons, which include archery, youth, muzzleloader, gun and special antlerless seasons.

“Chronic wasting disease is one of the greatest threats facing deer, elk and moose populations across the country, jeopardizing hunting opportunities, ecosystems and our nation’s outdoor economy,” said Mike Leahy, director for wildlife, hunting and fishing policy for the National Wildlife Federation.

State wildlife officials have been testing for the disease since the late ‘90s. It was previously discovered in Oklahoma in two private elk herds which had to be euthanized.

The disease spreads through bodily fluids when animals are in close contact, but also when animals contact soil that contains prions (protein particles) from urine, feces, saliva or an infected animal’s carcass.

“If you have a deer that is shedding infectious material on the landscape, it could remain active in that spot for years,” said Barber, the biologist.

Animals infected with CWD eventually lose weight, lose their appetite and develop an insatiable thirst. They tend to separate from their herd and behave erratically.

CWD has been documented in 30 states and Canada. Every state bordering Oklahoma has animals infected with the disease, and the first cases in Oklahoma’s free-ranging wild deer were found last summer when the Wildlife Department received reports of sick deer.

As a result of the two confirmed cases, the Wildlife Department established a surveillance area in northwest Oklahoma where they have increased monitoring for CWD and created sites where hunters can drop off deer samples for testing. There are also special rules for transporting deer carcasses from the area.

“We are just trying to slow the human-aided movement of those prions,” Barber said.

Some western states have seen significant decline in mule deer populations as a result of CWD, Barber said.

“Science is showing that mule deer are more susceptible to the disease,” he said.

Oklahoma is home to a few mule deer in the far western portion of the state, but the state’s deer herd is predominately whitetails.

Hall attended an international symposium on CWD in Minnesota earlier this year.

“I came away from that (symposium) with the impression, especially in whitetail deer, the disease is probably not going to have a real drastic impact on the number of deer we have in Oklahoma,” Hall said.

If CWD does become entrenched in Oklahoma, Hall said he believes the numbers of deer dying from it will go up but “it is such a slow-spreading disease, I think it is not going to have a drastic effect on the population.

“Now if we are talking about mule deer or elk, it could potentially have a more drastic effect. I think we could see a small decrease in the (whitetail deer) population but my gut feeling is it is not going to just decimate the native whitetails in Oklahoma.”

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry is responsible for monitoring CWD in captive deer and elk herds in the state. There are 110 farms in Oklahoma with captive herds, but only 13 are required to test for the disease because animals are transported across state lines, Hall said.

Any death of a captive deer or elk over one year old on farms that do business out of state has to have the animal tested, he said.

Barber said Arkansas has high prevalence rates of CWD in a couple of corners of the state. Kansas also has one hot spot, while the CWD cases in Texas are sporadic across the state, he said.

All Oklahoma can do is keep monitoring for CWD and try to keep it contained as best as possible, Barber said.

“We don’t know where it is at all together,” he said. “We just have two little dots on a map. We will know more as we start testing more from that area.”

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c) 3 public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: Follow Oklahoma Voice on Facebook and Twitter.

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