The deer and elk populations of Missouri face a looming threat from chronic wasting disease. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), 33 deer in Missouri have tested positive for this exceptionally destructive disease.
Chronic wasting disease affects the nervous system of deer and elk causing classifiable brain lesions. The disease has perplexed scientists and researchers for decades. Its origins are mysterious and the reasons why it is spreading remain unclear. According to the CWD Alliance, the disease has been found in 23 states so far. The biggest concern wildlife officials are facing is how to contain it and stop the spread.
In Missouri, the disease has been found in five counties. Arkansas, however, has seen numbers nearly doubling the deer affected in Missouri. Could Missouri also see the spread of the disease hit the same levels as our southern neighbors?
“Based on what we know about how chronic wasting disease spreads, the disease has been in Arkansas for a long time,” said Jasmine Batten, MDC wildlife disease coordinator. “We do know that in the absence of management intervention, the disease grows in prevalence and geographic spread. Although the disease spreads slowly, so it likely takes many years to reach prevalence levels like Arkansas is finding.”
The disease is transmitted through an abnormal “prion” protein by deer-to-deer contact. The prions can be found in animal waste and also in brain matter or the spinal column, which are the riskiest parts of the carcass, Batten explained.
“MDC encourages hunters and the general public to report sick deer to their local MDC office or Conservation Agent,” Batten said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises generally not to consume a deer that appears sick.”
Though hunters might notice some physical symptoms. The only way to know if a deer has the disease is to have it tested.
“It is impossible to know at the moment you shoot a deer if it has chronic wasting disease,” said Alex Ruff, MDC wildlife biologist. “There are physical signs, but it is impossible to know without testing the brain lymph nodes if your deer is positive.”
Hunters can choose to have their deer sampled by the MDC and will be notified within two weeks if their deer test positive or negative for the disease. Personal preference dictates whether humans choose to consume meat at risk for the disease. The MDC recommends not eating infected meat. Hunters concerned about their deer can freeze the meat until the results of the tests come back. If positive, the meat can then be thrown away. The MDC encourages hunters to practice safe carcass disposal by moving the carcass to a landfill to help stop the spread of the disease, according to Ruff.
The MDC currently has several measures in place to stop the spread of the disease, Batten said. This includes detecting the disease quickly in areas where it has not presented before and gaining a better understanding of the disease and its prevalence in the areas where it is present. The MDC has been surveying deer for the disease statewide since 2001, and routine annual surveillance is ongoing.