Chronic Wasting Disease Found in Wisconsin Deer

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(Host) Vermont officials have banned imports of deer and elk into the state as they try to stop the spread of an incurable illness that’s related to mad cow disease. The action by the state Wildlife and Agriculture Departments follows the discovery last winter that the disease had moved from western states to deer herds in the Midwest.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) Chronic wasting disease is a fatal illness that strikes wild and captive deer species. Like mad cow disease, this brain disorder is part of a family of illnesses that kill their victims by forming sponge-like holes in their brains.

Wildlife biologists had thought the disease was confined to the western U.S. and Canada. In those areas, it spread from captive herds into wild populations. But then it was found last winter in wild deer in Wisconsin.

John Buck is Vermont’s deer project leader with the Fish and Wildlife Department. He says the Wisconsin discovery shocked biologists:

(Buck) “To have it move 700 miles to the east for unknown reasons – we can speculate but it’s not really known how it got that far East so quickly…. [It] really did turn a lot of people onto the seriousness of this disease.”

(Dillon) Vermont has about 50 farms where deer and elk are raised. Buck says the import ban stops animal shipments from all states, regardless of whether they’ve seen the disease or not.

(Buck) “The first thing that the importation ban does for us is that it stops the transportation of disease and elk into Vermont. And we know very, very little about chronic wasting disease but it is thought that one way that it can be transmitted is through direct contact from animal to animal.”

(Dillon) Chronic wasting disease hasn’t been found anywhere in the east. Buck says if it did infect Vermont, hunters would probably stay away from the woods. He says the results could be devastating.

The World Health Organization has warned people not to eat deer or elk that show signs of the disease. Buck says there’s no direct evidence that hunters could contract a human version of the disease from eating an infected animal:

(Buck) “But still, it’s a risk that people are unwilling to take. I don’t blame them for that. And it would have a serious consequence to hunting and deer management…. And the ecological outcomes of having an over-abundant deer herd would be just devastating.”

(Dillon) The state will also test deer this fall to learn if the illness has spread to the Green Mountains. There’s no test that can be done on live animals. So Buck says biologists will probably test road-killed deer or those brought in to game checking stations during hunting season.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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