A couple weeks ago Washington County recorded its first-ever case of Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD. The fatal, contagious, neurological disease affects deer, elk, and moose.
Washington County’s case was in an “older, healthy, trophy buck” that was harvested mid-county in the past couple months, according to Shane Hesting, who is a wildlife disease specialist for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
He said the buck was tested during routine surveillance after being taken to a taxidermist.
About 50 deer from Washington County were routinely tested during the 2020 season as part of disease surveillance even though the county hadn’t previously found a positive case.
Hesting said samples are collected from roadkill and deer that are reported for acting strange as well as from deer taken to processors and taxidermists during hunting season.
He said taxidermists are a good resource because they often get older animals, which are the animals most likely to test positive for CWD.
“Usually, if you find one, there are others,” he said of CWD presence in the area.
He said the population of Washington County’s deer with CWD is probably at or below 1 percent, though he said 50 percent of the county’s deer could be infected with the disease in 15 years, which is what happened in northwest Kansas.
He said the disease spreads easily among deer. CWD proteins from infected deer don’t degrade and will bind to plants and soil particles, he said. Saliva at corn piles can also spread the disease.
CWD is moving east across the state, said field biologist Clint Thornton, and it skipped a few counties to get to Washington County.
Hesting said deer can become infected before birth, and yearling bucks can spread the disease to new areas when they leave their mothers and search for new areas. Hunters can also introduce the disease to a new area by moving deer carcasses from where they have been killed. Plants with CWD proteins on them that are moved to a new area can also introduce the disease.
Hesting said officials will probably never know how Washington County’s first case of CWD came to the county, but hunters can help slow the spread by not moving deer carcasses and by not baiting deer or putting out corn piles.
“When you have CWD and you are baiting deer, you are bringing every deer to that site, and other deer pick up the disease,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to spread.”
Risk to people?
Hesting said people should not eat CWD-positive deer, but there is no way to identify CWD in deer without testing, and most deer with the disease look healthy until the end-stage of the disease. He said deer in the final stages of the disease are emaciated and sickly and lose fear of people, though that would describe several diseases. He said most deer with CWD are killed by predators.
Hesting said CWD’s risk to people “is not zero,” and researchers are still studying the potential risk of eating meat from a deer with CWD. He said two monkeys contracted CWD after eating deer meat, and while the study is still being reviewed, it would be “groundbreaking.”
He said people can contact K-State at 785-532-5650 to request a test for CWD. The cost will be about $37, but the results should be available quickly. A free test is also available, though those results will take longer, and samples will have to be sent to Missouri.
Hesting said deer meat that will be made into jerky should be frozen for 30 days prior to kill parasites, and results for a CWD test could be available during that 30-day waiting period.
He said data suggests that cattle will not get CWD in a natural setting because a barrier in cattle’s guts seems to prevent the disease from crossing species. The disease can be transmitted to other species in lab settings where the disease is injected into animals, he said.