A monitoring program for chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer was set into place last week by the Ohio Division of Wildlife as a precautionary measure against spread of the deadly infection from states to the west.
“There are no indications that chronic wasting disease [CWD] exists in Ohio, but we believe it is prudent to aggressively monitor Ohio deer for this disease,” said Mike Budzik, state wildlife chief.
CWD has been confirmed in eight states and in parts of western Canada among both free-ranging and captive deer and elk.
Ohio's deer herd is estimated at about 500,000 animals and is considered to be in healthy condition.
Nor has CWD been found in neighboring Michigan, which shares its Upper Peninsula border with Wisconsin, a newly affected state. A CWD monitoring program has been in place in Michigan since 1998 and the Natural Resources Commission is considering an aggressive contingency plan should the disease show up. Michigan has about 1.8 million deer.
No method for testing live deer has been developed, so Ohio wildlife biologists will be looking for deer showing clinical signs of CWD - drooling, trouble swallowing, and difficulty moving about.
Animals showing such symptoms would be euthanized and tested. Samples also will be collected from deer brought to select deer-check stations during the Ohio hunting seasons in November and December.
“In addition to regularly examining the physical condition and reproductive success of Ohio's deer herd, we test for possible diseases such as bovine tuberculosis,” said Pat Ruble, administrator of wildlife management and research for the division. He noted that while bovine TB has been found in some Michigan deer, it has not been found in Ohio deer.
The deer-sample collections from check-stations are done every other year in cooperation with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. In addition, annual surveys of antler diameters and periodic evaluation of body weights have shown the state herd to be in excellent physical condition, Ruble added.
Annually wildlife biologists also work with the Ohio Department of Health to watch for deer ticks, which can carry lyme disease.
Ruble encourages hunters to plan their normal hunts in their normal haunts this fall. “I'd eat venison from Ohio deer and feed it to my family.”
In Michigan, where wildlife and agriculture authorities have been battling bovine TB in deer for some years, a disease-surveillance system already is in place, noted Dr. Dan O'Brien, a veterinarian at the state's Rose Lake Wildlife Disease Laboratory.
He added that plans are under way to monitor for CWD among captive deer and elk herds in addition to the wild herds. Michigan has tested for TB in about 89,000 deer carcasses in the last six years, and just 398 tested positive. An aggressive hunting and culling program through increased bag limits has been under way in the northeast Lower Peninsula, where the TB outbreak was centered.
O'Brien joins Ohio's Ruble in encouraging hunters to stay in the game. An avid hunter, the vet said he has “no problem” with shooting Michigan deer and eating the venison. Continued hunting, moreover, is critical. “We're completely reliant on hunters to manage the deer population.”
Without hunting, deer populations in most states would explode to socially intolerable levels in a matter of several years or less.
CWD has been traced back to a wildlife research pen in northeast Colorado in 1967. It has been identified in wild deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, Nebraska, South Dakota, and western Canada.
More importantly, it also was found recently in Wisconsin's deer herd, centered in a 361-square-mile zone west of Madison. It was the first time the disease had shown up east of the Mississippi River and has led to an aggressive, drastic plan to kill some 25,000 deer in the “eradication zone.”
“Wisconsin really triggered us,” said Ohio's Ruble.
The disease is degenerative and affects the brain and spinal column. It is believed to be caused by abnormal proteins called prions, and is related to scrapie in sheep and goats, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy [BSE] or “mad cow” disease in cattle, and Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease in humans.
The state wildlife division stresses that CWD is not the same as mad cow disease or CJD.
In fact, the 1,650-member North American Elk Breeders Association contends that panic reactions about mad cow disease has fueled unreasonable fears about CWD.
“It has hurt. There is unnecessary alarm,” said Henry Kriegel, an association spokesman. Some elk farmers have complained that reports about CWD have harmed their business, even though their herds are rated disease-free.
Debbie Larrick, president of the 20-member Ohio Elk Breeders Association, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
She and her husband, Dan, operate an elk farm and fair-chase hunting preserve in Guernsey County. They have been monitoring for CWD for two years and found no infections. “We've had no problem with our meat sales ... yet.”
A cervid (deer and elk) advisory committee of farmers and ranchers is working with state wildlife and agriculture authorities in CWD monitoring.
“Chronic wasting disease is a problem of perception to the public,” Kriegel stated. “It's a real deer and elk issue. [But] it has not been shown to cross species to humans or to cattle.
“NAEBA takes this issue seriously and has led the way in developing and implementing a CWD eradication program in farmed elk that is working successfully to control this disease.”
So far some 4,400 farmed elk in the United States and about 8,000 in Canada have been slaughtered for testing under government programs that indemnify the farmers and ranchers for their losses. Fewer than 300 of the slaughtered elk were found to have CWD.
There are about 2,300 elk farms in the U.S. and Canada.
Michigan's O'Brien says “We understand the concerns [of hunters and the public]. But the cure is education and to do the testing. People are afraid of what they don't know.”