A disease in the same family as Mad Cow Disease is spreading among deer, and this week state officials will decide on new rules to help contain it.
Chronic Wasting Disease was first identified in Arkansas in 2016, but state wildlife veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Ballard said because infection is hard to detect, it likely persisted long before then. Scientists believe it’s caused by highly contagious proteins called prions that spread between animals, through body fluids or indirectly through soil or water. Ballard said CWD poses a huge threat to deer populations.
“We’re concerned about it,” she said, “because there’s evidence, based on its long-term persistence in western states, that this can actually cause population declines when it reaches a high prevalence.
“CWD eats away at animals’ bodies, causes behavioral changes and ultimately leads to death. The proposal would remove fawn and yearling bucks, which have higher rates of CWD, increase the bag limit for harvesting deer in and near affected areas, and limit baiting and feeding on private lands. Some hunters oppose the changes.
Ashley Chance, southeast regional coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation’s Artemis Program, said deer hunting contributes significantly to Arkansas’ outdoor recreation and tourism economy. She said tackling CWD is critical to ensuring sustainable deer populations for the future – which means humans have to watch their behavior, too.
“As somebody in Arkansas who cares about deer in any way, whether you want to hunt them or you just want to continue seeing them on the landscape,” she said, “really stopping concentrating them – whether it be with artificial feeding or bait sites – I mean, that’s probably the single biggest thing you as an individual can do to impact the trajectory of this disease.”
Ballard said Chronic Wasting Disease goes beyond outbreaks in deer, adding that once prion proteins are found in the environment, they can remain in those areas for years.
“When you bring animals together, if you have even one infected animal, they’re going to have the opportunity to infect other animals,” she said, “but they’re also going to potentially be depositing prions into the environment that can infect other animals, well into the future.”
Current research shows no evidence of transmission to humans, but some experts say CWD potentially could pose a health risk down the road. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lab studies have found the disease has been transmitted to monkeys that were fed infected deer meat.