Depending on your source of information, the issue of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer could be really serious or just an interesting factor. There is no doubt that CWD is responsible for the deaths of deer and elk. 

According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, “It is related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE – the infamous ‘mad cow disease’ that killed 229 people in the United Kingdom – and is an incurable, always fatal degeneration of the brain, according to an analysis published by the Alliance for Public Wildlife. It was first documented in captive mule deer in the late 1960s.”

Kansas detected 12 animals with CWD in 2016-2017, most of which were in northwest Kansas. None have been detected in eastern Kansas at this time.

A recent study of the disease and its transferability among species – eventually to humans – was discussed during the 2017 North American Deer Summit earlier this month in Austin, Texas.

I found it interesting that “Estimates show 7,000 to 15,000 CWD-infected animals are being consumed by humans every year, according to the analysis, and these sort of prion diseases are known for jumping between species barriers.”

Tim Donges, president of the Quality Deer Management Association’s Bluestem branch, advocated for urgency by decision-makers after hearing the recent reports. I was in the meeting in Texas with Darrel Rowledge and he is very concerned about public safety. Once the first human is thought to have contracted CWD, we could see fallout in the ag market because of food safety concerns. This is becoming a very serious situation. I do not see a way to stop the spread. The U.S. government has bought deer farms contaminated by CWD and are considered contaminated super sites.

Donges said the government has tried several means of containing the disease, including radiation, burning the soil in furnaces and formaldehyde, with no success.

CWD prions can be moved by wind blowing dust or rain water moving contaminated soil.

Twenty-four states now have reported CWD. They recommend that hunters should have their deer tested for CWD prior to consumption. KDWPT regularly establishes zones from which they test a number of deer each year. If you harvest a deer from one of those zones, the testing is free. Otherwise, you can have the meat tested for $28 plus shipping to Kansas State University, where testing is done on the meat.

You can contact K-State at www.Clientcare@vet.k-state.edu or call 785-532-5650.

You are encouraged to avoid eating meat from sick or CWD-infected deer or elk, have the meat tested for CWD, wear gloves and minimize handling of the brain and spinal cord when field dressing an animal.

Prions are like an alien species that is nearly impossible to kill. Once in the brain, apparently they eat it away until your brain looks like Swiss cheese and you eventually die, but they do not. I am not an expert in prions, but they sound unearthly to me. One of the concerns is that they could contaminate our entire ecosystem. Spooky stuff.

By the way, to me, this is a perfect reason to encourage more predators like wolves and mountain lions that would reduce the herd size by eliminating sick deer.

Matt Nowak is a retired natural resources specialist and lives in Lansing.