As another deer hunting season ramps up in Oklahoma, wildlife experts are raising awareness about a fatal neurological disease that affects deer and elk.
Chronic wasting disease attacks the brain of cervids, or animals in the deer family, including white-tailed deer, mule deer and elk. There is no treatment for or vaccine against the disease.
CWD has been detected in 23 states, including Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. It also has been detected in two Canadian provinces. While CWD is not currently known to be present in Oklahoma, the disease has been detected in captive deer in Oklahoma in the past.
“Chronic wasting disease is not new, but there is continued lack of awareness with the public. There is also some misinformation out there that this disease isn’t a concern to deer or deer hunters. Neither of which is true,” said Dwayne Elmore, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist and Bollenback Chair in wildlife management. “While it has not yet impacted free-ranging deer in Oklahoma, it has affected surrounding states and poses a significant risk to our deer populations.”
Visible symptoms of CWD include, but are not limited to, stumbling, lack of coordination and drooping ears, but the disease has a long incubation period of a year or more. Those factors leave hunters with no certain way to tell if an animal is infected.
While CWD has not been shown to cause disease in humans, disease experts advise caution as the possibility of transmission to humans has not been ruled out. CWD is part of the prion family of diseases, which also includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, as well as variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, the human form of mad cow disease.
“One of the problems with the disease is the long incubation period. Related diseases in humans may go undetected for many years,” said Elmore, who stressed that hunters who harvest cervids from a known CWD area such as parts of Colorado and Wyoming need to have the animal tested.
Most states with CWD present offer testing, and many times it is done at no charge to the hunter. Additional information is available on the various states’ wildlife agency websites.
Testing is not currently recommended in Oklahoma since the state has not detected CWD in wild deer. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has been monitoring for the disease since 1999 and will advise the public of any status changes.
“If an animal tests positive for CWD, do not consume the meat,” Elmore said. “Also, limiting contact with spinal fluid and not consuming lymph, brain or spinal tissue is highly recommended.”
Wildlife biologists recommend specific deer carcass handling practices to help reduce the potential spread of the disease.
When possible, deer carcasses should be buried on the property where they were harvested. Remains also may be disposed of via regular household garbage collection that is transported to an approved, lined landfill. Or, if it is not possible to bury the carcass where it was harvested, leave the remains in place.
Carcasses should not be disposed of in ponds, lakes or waterways; by burning; or hauled to another property where it was not originally harvested.
“This is a concern for Oklahomans hunting out of the state in known CWD areas,” Elmore said. “For Oklahoma hunters hunting in the state, they should be aware and pay attention to the ODWC for news regarding the current situation. But, at present, there is no immediate cause for concern for deer harvested within the state.”
For more information about CWD, contact the nearest county Extension office or the ODWC.