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Serving: KS

Chronic wasting disease in deer spreads in Kansas

The majority of cases occur in the northwest part of the state, but the disease is gradually moving to the south and east.

In 2007, Matt Bain arrowed a trophy whitetail in Decatur County, Kan. The buck earned Bain a spot in the record book and a trophy for his wall.

It would have provided his family a winter’s worth of meat had it not tested positive for chronic wasting disease. The disease is 100% fatal in deer. It’s never been passed to livestock or humans.

Still.

“If it was just me, I’d probably not bother [getting them tested],” says Bain, of Scott City. “But I had young kids. If they became the first case of CWD being transmitted to humans? That would be horrible. We get all our deer tested. It is worth it for the peace of mind.”

That one whitetail from 12 seasons ago is the only one he’s had test positive for the disease, despite getting deer tested annually.

The Bains have figured out how to live with CWD in Kansas.

We all should.

No reason to panic

The Kansas Department of Agriculture has few concerns about CWD being passed to livestock. Heather Landsdowne, KDA communications director, referenced a 10-year Wyoming study where scientists fed meat and other body parts from infected deer to cattle. They also kept cattle in pens that had held infected deer. No cattle contracted the disease.

There’s also no proof CWD can be passed to humans. The disease is found in at least 24 states. An estimated 12,000 Americans annually eat venison from infected deer, says Shane Hesting, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. His agency takes the lead for following CWD in Kansas.

However, a recent Canadian study reported meat from CWD deer was fed to macaques, and the primates contracted CWD. Hesting said other scientists are reviewing the study.

Best to remain educated

CWD was first diagnosed in deer along the Colorado-Wyoming border in the 1960s. It probably spread from sheep diseased with scrapie. CWD is spread through prions, which are proteins. Infected captive animals shipped to other states helped with the deer-to-deer spread. So have hunters transporting the bones and brains of infected deer to their home states. The prions can stay active in the ground for many years.

Kansas’ first case in wild deer was in Cheyenne County in 2005, near the Colorado and Nebraska borders where the disease had been spreading for years. To date, more than 240 Kansas deer have tested positive for CWD in Kansas, including 56 in 2018. More than 27,000 have been tested since 1996. The disease is becoming more prevalent and spreading.

Wildlife and Parks annually tests a few hundred deer, focusing on one region of Kansas annually. This year it will be northwest Kansas, where the majority of CWD cases occur. Some estimates say the disease may be prevalent in more than 30% of whitetail and mule deer over the age of 2½ years in some areas.  More than 35 Kansas counties have produced CWD-positive deer. Reno and Jewell counties are the farthest east.

Uncertainties

Even the most optimistic scientists say there is a chance the CWD prions could change to a form that can be transmitted to livestock or humans. Many doubt that will happen.

Hesting said some elk and deer populations in Colorado and Wyoming have dropped a lot in recent years. CWD could be part, or all, of the cause.

Many think the disease affects populations in northwest Kansas. Some wonder how severely it will affect the sport so many Kansas families enjoy. It could also affect the state’s multimillion-dollar deer hunting industry.

“People have never gotten scrapies, and it’s been around hundreds of years, so that’s a strong argument we don’t need to worry about CWD and humans,” says Bain, who has two degrees in wildlife biology. “But as far as our deer population, I think it’s a problem. Where we used to see 20 or 30 whitetails in northwest Kansas, we now may see two or three. It’s sad.”

More information on CWD in Kansas, and how to get animals tested, is available on pages 22 and 23 of the 2019 Kansas Hunting & Furharvesting Summary. The agency has created an excellent YouTube video.

CWD recommendations for hunters

  • It’s recommended that all deer taken in areas with the disease be tested for CWD. The regulation book or YouTube video tells how. Meat can be frozen in quarters until results are known.
  • Deer that test positive for CWD should not be eaten. Standard cooking does not kill the prions.
  • It’s impossible to tell if a deer has CWD by appearance. Many appear to be extremely healthy.
  • Hunters should not shoot deer that look or act sick in any way. Contact your local game warden or district biologist and let them handle it.
  • It’s best to remove venison from the bones of deer, without cutting through bones. Stay away from brains, lymph nodes and the spine, areas where the disease is most likely to occur.
  • Wear surgical gloves when gutting or processing deer.
  • Do not dispose of any parts, especially bones and brain, of deer away from the area where it was killed. If that area is too far, double-bag the remains and send them to the landfill.

Pearce writes from Lawrence, Kan.

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