- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

It's being talked about in hushed tones in every one of the 48 contiguous states: a sickness that affects deer and elk and eventually kills them.
Little is known about chronic wasting disease (CWD), but despite the fact that relatively few whitetailed deer have contracted it, the very chance of it occurring in any particular area of the country is drastically changing the attitudes of many American hunters.
Some are throwing away venison that has been frozen since last year; others are saying they won't hunt deer until wildlife biologists can assure them that "their" deer are perfectly safe; some want to know if the venison from an CWD-affected animal will harm humans and if it doesn't, they'll keep right on hunting.
Thus far, all that is known is that CWD is a progressive disease of the central nervous system that is found in some species of deer and elk. It is characterized by chronic weight loss; the animal wastes away, then dies.
No specific agent responsible for CWD has been identified. The most likely cause, says Gary Moody, chief of the Alabama Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division, are prions abnormal proteins that cause sponge-like lesions in an animal's brain.
The most obvious sign is a considerable weight loss over a period of time. But behavioral changes, says Moody, also include decreased interactions with other animals, repetitive walking in a set pattern, increased salivation, the lowering of the head, listlessness and blank facial expression. Whitetailed deer also seem to drink more and urinate more frequently.
What's scary is that scientists believe CWD to be extremely contagious among deer, but they do not know the exact method of transmission, although it is widely believed that it is transmitted through saliva, urine and feces. Of additional concern is the warning that although scientists do not believe CWD can affect humans they are not absolutely certain of this.
What we do know is that in 1979, CWD was positively identified in Colorado. Now it has struck the southwestern sector of Wisconsin and despite the fact that few deer have shown the wasting signs of the disease, the state has told hunters to shoot all the deer (approximately 25,000) in that region to keep the disease from spreading. Deer hunting is a huge recreational activity in midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. CWD could be devastating to local economies and even if not actually found and identified in the majority of the states, it already is having a ripple effect as deer hunters are rethinking planned outings.
Since 1997, CWD has been diagnosed in at least 16 privately owned elk herds in states including Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana. CWD also has been identified in farmed elk and free-ranging mule deer in Saskatchewan. By May 2001, it was seen among the whitetailed deer in southwestern Nebraska and 10 months later in Wisconsin, moving to the deer in New Mexico by June 2002.
Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries says the introduction of CWD into the state's deer population would be disastrous. The 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation showed that hunting-related expenditures by residents and out-of-state visitors to Virginia amounted to more than $300million. This figure does not utilize economic multiplier factors. It shows only hunting-related expenditures.
Paul Peditto, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Service, said, "While there is no evidence of CWD in Maryland deer herds, it is essential that we take proactive steps to monitor our deer population, as well as limit the risk of introduction of this disease into Maryland. This is a very serious disease with no cure in sight, and many questions still need to be answered."
In Maryland and Virginia, the limiting of risk generally means making it illegal to import live deer or elk (cervids) by anyone.
Meanwhile, I plan to hunt deer during the November firearms seasons in both states, perhaps even West Virginia and North Carolina as well. I will, however, take care to wear latex gloves while field dressing and skinning a deer, as well as cutting up the venison, deboning all of it. Maryland's DNR says to minimize the handling of brain or spinal cord tissue and, of course, we will do a lot of washing of the hands with hot water and soap.
If I see a deer that appears to be sluggish or acts sick in any possible way, I will not shoot it, but report it to the nearest game warden. If the state says the shooting of such a deer will not count against the legal seasonal limits, I would prefer to kill the animal to keep it from spreading any possible disease.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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