State wildlife officials are ramping up efforts to detect Chronic Wasting Disease during this year’s deer and elk hunting seasons. Hunters who harvested a deer during the first weekend of rifle hunting season in early October were required to stop at a Chronic Wasting Disease check station, such as the one we visited in Prineville.
“We’ll take two lymph nodes from either side of the chin and we’ll take a tooth from the lower jaw for aging. Those will be submitted for testing at a lab at Colorado State University.” said said Don Whittaker, Ungulate Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildife.
It takes about 10 minutes for staff to extract the samples — enough time for hunters to recall their success in the field.
“My name is Dillon Hagadorn. I’m 14 years old and I just shot my first buck this morning. We saw him up on a ridge top as we were going out. My dad sets me up. I ready up my rifle. I just look and ‘bam!’ My brain is still trying to process that I have actually got some meat for our freezer.”
Dillon is right about putting his venison in the freezer because it will take 3-to-6 weeks for tests to determine if the deer he harvested is infected with Chronic Wasting Disease. Similar mandatory stops and inspections will be required Nov. 4-6 during the first weekend of the Rocky Mountain Elk season.
“We do recommend that if you submit your animal for CWD testing that you might wait for the results,” said Whittaker. “We’ve been conducting this effort in Oregon for about 25 years to the tune of over 27,000 samples. We have yet to find it in the state of Oregon, which is good news.”
Symptoms of Chronic Wasting disease include loss of balance, drooling, emaciation or wasting, leading some to refer to sick animals as “Zombie Deer.”
Most savvy hunters will not harvest a deer in that condition, but the disease doesn’t manifest until the last few weeks of an animal’s life.
“Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD, scientifically we call it a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Basically, it’s a protein that’s a really weird shape. The deer’s body does not know how to deal with it. What it does is it builds up in neurologic tissue and that abnormal protein kills the cell. As it continues killing cells it actually puts holes in our brain, that’s why it’s called a spongiform encephalopathy.”
Chronic Wasting Disease is always fatal and there is no treatment or cure. It was first detected in Colorado and has since spread to deer herds in more than 20 states.
“It’s scary,” said Mike Totey, Oregon Hunters Association Conservation Director. “We are working hard to promote vigorous healthy populations of white tail deer, mule deer, Columbia black tail deer and elk in the state. When you see something like this that comes in, when you first notice the symptoms where we’ve seen it in other states you see it in those bigger, mature animals. That’s the thing. It really drives the point home at that time … one of the big concerns for us.”
Chronic Wasting Disease affects members of the cervid family such as deer, elk and moose. It is caused by a protein call a prion.
It is spread by nose-to-nose contact between animals, and through urine, feces, blood and saliva. The more animals are congregated, the easier it is for the disease to spread, which is why baiting and feeding deer and elk is a risky practice and highly discouraged.
“It’s a bigger push last year and this year because in 2021 the state of Idaho found it less than 25 miles from the border of Oregon along the Snake River. That concerns us. It was a very big jump from Montana to Idaho near our border which means it’s still moving,” Whittaker said. “We also know from our research and collaring efforts in both states that both deer and elk move back and forth across that river, so we are very concerned about how close it is. We would rather not get it here. That’s why we are stepping up our efforts. Last year these check stations became mandatory.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends not eating the meat from an animal that tests positive for Chronic Wasting Disease, even though it’s not clear if the disease is transmissible to humans.
Oregon takes that precaution one step farther by advising hunters not to shoot or handle deer and elk that look sick or are acting strangely
“If a hunter lets us sample an animal that comes back as positive with CWD, we will help that hunter properly dispose of that animal and the carcass. What we don’t want is that going out on the landscape because the agent that causes CWD lasts a long time out there on the landscape and animals can get it from whatever that gets put out there. We’ll allow them to properly dispose of it either in a certified landfill that prevents leeching or scavengers, or we prefer to have it incinerated at a very high temperature,” Whittaker said.
The possibility that Chronic Wasting Disease could infect Oregon’s deer and elk herds brings all sorts of uncertainty to these iconic animals that everyone enjoys seeing in The Great Outdoors.