Chronic wasting disease, a disease in deer caused by a protein that literally eats away brain tissue, has finally arrived in the southern Appalachians. In September, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) found the first known case of chronic wasting disease in the region. The two-year-old infected buck was killed on a Hampshire County road near the Virginia line in 2004 and was picked up in an aggressive roadkill CWD survey the DNR implemented three years ago. The deer was the 1,320th tested over that timeframe and the first to test positive.
Deer experience disorientation, loss of motor skills, dementia and death. The disease is always fatal and there is no way to test a live deer.
The disease was first seen in Colorado’s mule deer herd in 1967. The only known cases in the Eastern U.S. have been in Wisconsin, Illinois, New York and now West Virginia.
There have been no known cases of CWD infecting humans.
After receiving the report, the DNR began killing deer within a five-mile radius of where the positive deer was found. Tissue from more than 120 carcasses was sent to the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for testing. Of those 121 samples, three were found positive for CWD.
All three of the deer were taken within 2.5 miles of where the original deer was found. For the moment, at least, it appears the disease is confined to a small area around Slanesville in Hampshire County.
“Thank God, we are looking at this now as a confined situation,” said Dick Hall, wildlife biologist.
The discovery shocked many, but surprised few biologists. Wildlife officials say the disease is transported thousands of miles with captive elk and deer, which are kept in pens for breeding or consumption.
“There is no question this disease has been moving across wide geographic areas on interstates at 70 mph,” said Paul Johansen, assistant Wildlife Resources chief for the W.Va. DNR.
Biologists knew it was coming and have had a CWD contingency plan in place for two years.
Officials predicted two years ago that discovery of the disease would cost the state’s economy $80 million, especially felt by rural businesses who cater to hunters. The total impact won’t be known until hunting seasons are over.
The DNR has launched a two-pronged attack, not only with an aggressive sampling to determine the extent of the disease, but a public-relations campaign as well. “We do not want to generate hysteria about this disease,” Johansen said. “The sky is not falling. We are going to manage this; we have a good solid plan that clearly identifies some goals,” Johansen said.
The DNR does advise hunters to not eat venison from an animal that appears sick. The agency also advises hunters to wear gloves when field dressing their kills and to avoid coming in contact with brain or spinal tissue.
Johansen said wearing latex gloves while dressing deer is always a good idea. He said the worst case of poison ivy he ever had came from not wearing gloves while field dressing a deer that had been eating poison ivy.