By Francis Skalicky
People won’t be hunting deer for several months, but they should still be vigilant for a disease that could severely impact Missouri’s deer population if it ever becomes widely established in this state.
Chronic Wasting Disease – CWD for short – is a deer disease that usually makes headlines in the fall when Missourians are preparing for deer hunting. However, signs of the disease can appear in deer at any time of year. That’s why Missouri Department of Conservation biologists want to remind turkey hunters, spring hikers, floaters and whoever else is outdoors at this time of year that if they see sick deer, they should contact their nearest conservation office or Department of Conservation office.
CWD is a disease that infects deer and other members of the family Cervidae. It is a neurological disease that can be passed from one deer to another. CWD is in the TSE – transmissible spongiform encephalopathy – category of diseases. TSE diseases, which are progressive diseases that affect the brain and nervous system – are not caused by a bacteria or virus and therein lies part of the problem why these diseases are so hard to contain or eliminate once they’re established. TSE diseases are caused by prions – which are, basically, deformed proteins. Prions can be passed from one deer to another and are incredibly resistant to external environmental conditions. Because of the hardiness of prions, CWD, for the present, has shown itself to be 100 percent fatal in cervids (which is the only group of animals it’s known to affect.)
Symptoms of CWD include excessive salivation, drooping head/ ears, tremors, emaciation and lack of coordination. However, it can take months (and sometimes years) for a deer infected with CWD to show any symptoms. Thus, an infected deer can spread the disease to other deer and contaminate the environment while appearing healthy.
CWD has been found in 23 states, including Missouri. To date, 21 cases of CWD have been confirmed in Missouri. All of these have been in northeast Missouri. Eleven cases were in captive deer at facilities in Linn and Macon counties and 10 were in free-ranging deer found within two miles of the Macon County facility. A total of 3,666 deer were tested for CWD during and after the 2013 deer hunting seasons and all tests came back negative. This large-scale testing effort was made possible through the cooperation of a many of the state’s hunters, landowners and taxidermists – proving once again that Missourians care about conserving forests, fish and wildlife. Although the absence of any positive CWD tests is encouraging, it still needs to be stressed that it doesn’t mean this disease has been successfully eliminated from the state’s deer population.
CWD has not been found in the Missouri Ozarks, but state-wide vigilance for the disease remains high with good reason: Hundreds of businesses in communities throughout the state depend on the $1 billion economic impact that deer hunting and deer viewing has on Missouri. CWD would have negative ramifications for the more than a half-million hunters who pursue white-tailed deer each year and the millions of other Missourians who like to see deer when they’re hiking, camping, floating or traveling across their farms.
The Missouri Department of Conservation is continuing to work with hunters, landowners, businesses, other agencies and partner organizations to identify the disease and limit the spread of CWD in Missouri. Anyone seeing sick deer are encouraged to call their local conservation agent or office.
More information about CWD and other deer-related issued can be found at missouriconservation.org. For more information about conservation issues, call the MDC’s Ozark Regional Office at (417) 256-7161.