State plans to test deer for chronic wasting disease

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(Host) State biologists plan to sample about 500 deer killed this hunting season to see if a fatal brain disorder has spread to Vermont from the Midwest.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Hunters take to the woods this weekend in search of white-tail deer. State biologists are on a hunt as well. They’re looking for signs of chronic wasting disease. It’s a mysterious and incurable brain ailment that’s in the same family as mad cow disease. Both illnesses kill their victims by forming sponge-like holes in the brain.

John Buck is the state’s deer project leader. He says biologists will sample brain stem tissue from about 500 animals killed this hunting season.

(Buck) “We are focusing in areas where if chronic wasting disease is present in Vermont – and I’m quite certain that it is, not but I’m not 100% sure. So if we are to focus our energies in areas where it is most likely. We are looking at border towns and areas where deer density are the greatest and those areas tend to coincide.”

(Dillon) Biologists were shocked last year when deer in Wisconsin tested positive for chronic wasting disease. Before that the disease was apparently confined to the western U.S. and Canada. It’s since turned up in Illinois and in Minnesota.

Buck says chronic wasting disease doesn’t appear to spread from deer to people. But he says hunters should take simple precautions. First, he says they should avoid taking any deer that looks sick. He says they should wear latex gloves when butchering the animal. Hunters should also dress the carcass without cutting the spinal cord, brain, or other nerve tissue where the infectious agent is found.

(Buck) “I tell hunters, this is what I’m going to do. If I get a deer in Vermont and it looks healthy and I take the precautions that I have advised – to bone the meat and wear the gloves -I’m going to eat the venison without any thought of becoming sick.”

(Dillon) Buck says the testing program will put a strain on staff and state resources. He’s hoping to get some help from the federal government to pay for the program. Besides testing deer this fall, the state has also halted imports of deer and elk into the state.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

Information for hunters is available from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources web site.

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