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Chronic wasting disease spreads among Kansas deer

Slideshow: The fatal disease is moving south and east in deer herds across Kansas.

October 19, 2020

6 Slides

Kansas deer hunters and landowners got bad news from last year’s testing for chronic wasting disease in northwest Kansas.

“Last year we had 258 deer tested up there and 100 came back positive,” says Shayne Hesting, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’s wildlife disease coordinator. “In 2 ½ year-old and older bucks we figure we could have about one out of two or one out of three deer up there could have it, if this is all accurate. That’s a bad deal up there.”

Rawlins, Sheridan, Gove and Decatur counties produced many of the CWD positives.

That wasn’t a surprise.

Decatur has produced 50 positives over the past 13 years and Rawlins another 43.

“We’ve had 361 positives over time, and we have 93 from just those two counties,” Hesting says.

The disease affects both whitetails and mule deer, bucks and does. It’s usually not detected until the animal is 2 ½ years old, or older. Its spread is only expected to snowball across Kansas, both in population percentages and range.

CWD is a prion-based disease similar to mad cow disease and also Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. So far there’s no evidence it has been spread to livestock or humans.

It was first identified in captive deer in northern Colorado in the mid-1960s. It has since spread to 24 states, three Canadian provinces as well as several nations in Europe and Asia.

It’s spread to other members of the deer family, such as elk and moose. It’s 100% fatal. Deer can get it from other deer via direct contact such as saliva. The prions have remained viable in the soil for 10 or more years. Deer that come in contact with skeletal remains of infected deer can also become diseased.

The internet is filled with debate on if the disease could ever be passed to humans or other primates by eating the meat of infected deer.

Kansas began testing for CWD about 25 years ago. All along, the disease spread our way from northern Colorado and western Nebraska.

The first wild deer to test positive was in 2005 in Cheyenne County, just a few miles from both Nebraska and Colorado. The state’s up to about 28,000 tests since it all began. As stated, there have been 363 positives.

It’s gradually spread east and south from there. Last year, Seward and Russell counties logged their first positive cases.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture, the overseer of captive cervids, has reported a positive in a captive cow elk in Osage County this year, too. Not much information is available as per that animal.

Hesting is pleased there were no clusters of positives that had popped out far from the known CWD range in Kansas.

“It’s moving east, but slowly,” he says. “That tells me hunters are doing a good job of not moving (bones and offal that can carry the disease) around. We don’t need someone throwing that stuff out in the back pasture and creating a new hotspot.”

CWD testing will be in overdrive this fall and winter. Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism will do the traditional amount of testing in north-central Kansas, with Phillips, Washington, Ellis and Dickinson counties at the corners. Hesting says a research project out of the University of Missouri will be gathering samples from the rest of the state.

You can visit Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism online for more details on where to get deer sampled.

The study is largely paid for from federal excise taxes on hunting and shooting equipment.

Hunters can easily get their deer tested on their own through K-State. You can receive sampling kits at no charge by calling the K-State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at 785-532-5650.

Watching a simple video details the process of removing the needed tissue. Shipping and testing totals about $35.

Facts about CWD

Some important details to know about the disease include:

Consumption advice. Despite the fact that people annually eat untested deer with CWD, the public is advised to not eat an animal that tests positive

Don’t harvest the sick. Hunters should not harvest deer that appear unhealthy. Such animals should be reported to your local game warden so it can be euthanized and have samples taken. Contact information can be found at ksoutdoors.com. County sheriff’s dispatch can also reach game wardens.

Cleaning advice. Hunters are advised to wear surgical gloves when cleaning deer, and not cut through any bones and not handle the brains.

Leave offal. Bones and other offal should be left where the deer was killed. Otherwise, hunters who process their own should double-bag bones and hide in heavy trash bags and sent to a landfill.

Pearce writes from Lawrence.

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