News Releases

February 05, 2010

Chronic Wasting Disease Remains a Threat to VT Deer

WATERBURY, Vt –Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) remains a serious threat to Vermont’s deer population, according to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. CWD is a contagious neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose. It causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death.

Dr. Shawn Haskell, a certified wildlife biologist and the state’s deer project leader, says the public can help by learning about the disease and reporting sick deer to the department.

To date, the disease has been documented in 16 states and 2 Canadian provinces. New York discovered CWD in captive deer and two wild deer nearby in Oneida County in 2005, but liberal lethal sampling of the local deer population has detected no infected deer since. The disease was detected in Virginia in January of 2010, and 16 additional cases were discovered in nearby West Virginia.

Currently, Vermont is believed to be CWD-free, but a preliminary false-positive test result from a hunter-harvested deer in East Montpelier had biologists worried for a few days in January, 2010.

“We were all relieved to find that additional tests demonstrated the deer was not infected,” said Dr. Haskell. “The prospects of CWD actually entering Vermont made it increasingly clear that we cannot take our current healthy status for granted.”

CWD is believed to be caused by mutant proteins known as prions. CWD is similar to other diseases such as scrapie in sheep and “mad cow disease.” Prions infect new animals when they are passed between deer after being shed in body fluids and feces. Prions can bind to soils and remain infectious for many years.

CWD is not known to be transmissible to humans, but it has had devastating effects on free-ranging deer in those states and provinces where it has been found. Clinical signs of illness include excessive drinking and urination, emaciation, drooling, listlessness, drooping ears, and lowered head. There is no reliable live-test, and infected animals can appear healthy for years. CWD is always fatal to deer.

CWD was originally discovered and spread from captive deer in Colorado. CWD first appeared east of the Mississippi River in 2002 when it was discovered in Wisconsin. The disease continues to be spread over long distances by the captive deer trade.

When CWD becomes established in a free-ranging population, efforts to eliminate the disease have proven unsuccessful. Prevention of CWD is a critical element to its management. When a first case is discovered in a new area, action must be swift and decisive if there is to be hope of eradicating the disease before it becomes established.

The Fish and Wildlife Department will be updating its CWD Strategic Response Plan in 2010. Most North American state and provincial wildlife agencies have such plans in place. Where deer densities are not high, as in Vermont, such response plans call for drastic reduction of free-ranging deer when an initial CWD-positive result is found.

In such a case, the initial step is for deer population objectives to be set at 0–5 deer per square-mile within a 10-mile radius of the infected deer, or about 300 square-miles. This must be done for at least five years in order to eradicate the disease before it becomes established in the otherwise-healthy deer population.

As part of a North American effort, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, in cooperation with U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been testing Vermont deer for CWD since 2002. Each year brain samples were taken from about 400 deer heads collected from cooperating meat-cutters statewide.

The department also asks that citizens phone-in sightings of sick deer that may be exhibiting signs of CWD. These deer make a very important contribution to disease monitoring efforts.

Being vigilant to diseases that could affect our fish and wildlife resources is the Fish and Wildlife Department’s duty. The department and Fish and Wildlife Board have taken pro-active steps to prevent the introduction of CWD into Vermont.

A regulation was passed in 2003 prohibiting the importation or possession of deer, elk or moose from states and provinces that have documented CWD and from captive hunt or farm facilities. Successful hunters bringing harvested deer, elk and moose into Vermont may only bring in de-boned meat that is cut up and packaged. The bones, nervous tissue and other parts are prohibited from importation or possession.

The feeding or baiting of white-tailed was prohibited in 2005. Deer feed can be contaminated with disease. Feeding and baiting can cause deer to congregate in densities that make CWD transmission more likely and deer vulnerable to disease outbreaks.

In 2009, a rule was passed to regulate captive hunting operations in Vermont. The department also currently is considering the risk of natural deer-urine scent lures used in hunting that are obtained from captive deer.

“If CWD is introduced to Vermont, there will be drastic changes for Vermont’s white-tailed deer, and negative impacts to Vermont’s economy,” said Fish and Wildlife Chief of Operations Thomas Decker. “We need to be vigilant and responsible toward our stewardship of these natural resources for the people of Vermont.”

More information about Chronic Wasting Disease can be found on the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s website: http://www.vtfishandwildlife.com/wildlife_diseases.cfm.

Source: Department of Fish and Wildlife
Last Updated at: February 05, 2010 15:05:05