Volume 13, Issue 37 ~ September 15 - 21, 2005
Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

Chronic Wasting Disease Knocks on Our Door
This deer was just skin covering a rack of bones.
—Kerry Mower, a wildlife disease specialist for the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish

New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range is nearly 2,000 miles to the west of Maryland. Thus deer hunters of this state weren’t much concerned two and a half years ago when wildlife biologist Kerry Mower told of a mule deer he examined after it was turned over to game wardens on March 28, 2003.

Truth is that hereabouts this was just another out-of-sight, out-of-mind incident. What possibly could a sickly New Mexico mule deer have to do with Maryland, a distant state where more than 250,000 healthy whitetails and sika deer roam, even though in numbers greater than they should be in much of our state?

The truth as it turns out is also that the diagnosis of that sickly mule deer so far away was a warning shot to wildlife scientists and managers just about everywhere in North America. Fortunately, the gang at DNR heard that shot. Several months later, they were finalizing plans to safeguard Maryland’s herds.

The New Mexico mule deer had the symptoms of deadly and contagious Chronic Wasting Disease, and seven weeks later the diagnosis was confirmed. It was a breakthrough of sorts seeing that previously the disease was associated more with deer in captivity at deer farms, some of them established to accommodate hunters who would rather shoot the proverbial fish in a barrel than go out in the wilderness on their own.

Confirmation of the fears of Kerry Mower proved beyond doubt that Chronic Wasting Disease could erupt in the wild. The closest deer farm or area known to have captive deer was 600 miles away from that sick deer. Small wonder that New Mexico’s wildlife authorities were shocked. Now it’s our turn to be shocked.

Too Close for Comfort
On Friday, Sept. 2, 2005, West Virginia wildlife authorities revealed that a road-killed two-and-one-half-year-old buck at Slanesville in Hampshire County was confirmed to be afflicted with CWD. That whitetail was found less than eight miles from Green Ridge State Forest, Maryland’s most popular public deer-hunting grounds. Chronic Wasting Disease is knocking on our door.

Earlier this year, there was also confirmation of Chronic Wasting Disease in upstate New York involving a couple of deer believed to have originated as captive whitetails. Captive deer are still believed to be most vulnerable, for deer density plays a role in this contagious contamination scenario involving deer and elk.

Yet here in Maryland, our wildlife managers have been scapegoats over the past year because of their drive to curb the possession of deer by private citizens. A crackdown came last year, and in Anne Arundel County game wardens (I prefer that old term to wildlife officers) seized captive whitetails from several owners and killed them for Chronic Wasting Disease testing. The seizures prompted a public outcry.

The deer were killed because the presence of Chronic Wasting Disease can only be confirmed by testing dead deer. Yet the brouhaha continued. So loud was the outcry that a bill was introduced in the General Assembly that would have required officers to inform those in possession of deer they were coming before they moved in.

Those who keep wildlife in captivity have an affinity to them as we do to our pets, so there would be the strong temptation to set them free — despite the fact that captive deer — which incidentally are legally the property of the state — are much more vulnerable to Chronic Wasting Disease outbreaks than their counterparts in the wild.

That bill got nowhere. Maryland now has fewer than 200 deer in captivity. In recent months, four citizens who had captive deer in possession took advantage of an amnesty and turned them over to the state. The fewer captive deer, the less chances of the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease.

Fatal, But Containable
Chronic Wasting Disease is what its name implies. Afflicted game simply waste away. This debilitating disease attacks the brain and spinal cord. There is no evidence of it in species other than deer or elk, and there are no indications of its presence in sika deer so popular on the lower Eastern Shore.

It is believed to be a prion disease, in which an altered protein prompts normal proteins to cause sponge-like holes in the brain. There is no known treatment or cure. Ultimately, it is fatal.

Chronic Wasting Disease is contagious among deer and elk and is related to mad cow disease as well as scrapie in sheep. At this time, there is no evidence that it has effected humans or domestic livestock.

In early stages of the disease, affected animals normally show no symptoms; in wild populations, incubation is believed to be about 18 months. Ultimately the animals appear emaciated, with excessive drooling, increased drinking and urination, listlessness, stumbling, trembling, nervousness and loss of fear of humans.

Chronic Wasting Disease appears to be passed between deer and elk via saliva, feces and urine, though contaminated soil could also be a factor in its spread. It is now present in 14 states and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Many thousands of deer and elk have died of the disease in the past five years, and thousands more were killed on orders of wildlife agencies to track the spread of the disease in areas where there is an outbreak. In West Virginia, sharpshooters have been engaged to take 100 or more deer in the area of Slanesville for tests to determine the extent of affliction thereabouts.

That brings us up to date on Chronic Wasting Disease, as Maryland hunters are understandably concerned as the first of our deer seasons, bow hunting statewide, opens this week. You can bet that Department of Natural Resources will be taking tissue samples from deer harvested in Allegany County, especially in the Green Ridge area.

How do things shape up? Chronic Wasting Disease is deadly serious. But the positive diagnosis of one deer does not necessarily mean catastrophe is at hand. Since I arrived here in 1956, we have had big scares previously — avian flu, zebra mussels, lamprey eels, pfisteria to name a few — but none turned out near as bad as originally feared.

Moreover, this time around DNR’s scientists and managers have a program in place. Gradually here and elsewhere, more is being learned about the disease, and its study is high priority on the federal level as well as in most states. Methinks deer and elk aren’t about to follow the route of the passenger pigeon. Enough said.

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