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Science and the Environment

Deer Across Missouri Being Tested for Chronic Wasting Disease

Tissue samples from deer harvested over the weekend in southwest Missouri are on their way to be tested for Chronic Wasting Disease.  KSMU's Michele Skalicky visited a testing site and has more.

Oldfield Packing south of Sparta was a busy place Saturday—the parking lot was full of hunters in camouflage standing around freshly killed deer in the backs of pickup trucks.

They were waiting their turn to have an employee of the Missouri Department of Conservation take samples from their harvest on this first day of fall firearms deer season.  The goal:  to determine if Chronic Wasting Disease has made its way into southern Missouri.

Andy Humble, private lands conservationist with MDC, cut open a deer’s throat while he explained they’re sampling the animal’s retropharyngeal lymph nodes.

"The Department of Conservation has a long running history of sampling for Chronic Wasting Disease," Humble said.  "We're just expanding our sample size so that we have a more accurate reflection of what is potentially taking place on the landscape."

In areas where CWD has been confirmed, sampling is mandatory.  But here in southwest Missouri this year, testing is voluntary.

Brad Brake brought the first deer his 13-year-old son, Alex, had shot to Oldfield because he said the packing plant has the best summer sausage.  But he decided to let MDC take a sample from the deer while they were there.

"Why not?  I didn't mind to do it," he said.

He’ll already have the deer back and processed and partially eaten before the results come back—it could take longer than eight weeks—but he’s not worried about consuming it.

"Me, personally, based on where that it came from, extreme southern Dallas County, I am pretty confident that it's fine," he said.

Harold Swearingen also brought a deer his son had shot for testing.

"My son killed it behind my house.  If there's a problem, I'd like to know," said Swearingen.

He said it doesn’t bother him to consume the meat before he knows if the deer has CWD.

So far, no studies have shown that the disease, which is actually a mutated protein, can be passed from deer to humans.  Humble said MDC recommends following the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations for consuming meat. 

"The CDC recommendations would be that if you know that it's infected they would recommend that you do not consume it.  But they do say that it has not been found to transmit across species barrier--between species," he said.

MDC has conducted statewide surveillance for Chronic Wasting Disease since 2002.  So far, out of 51,000 samples, there have been 33 confirmed cases—in northeast, central and eastern Missouri.  But recently there were several confirmed cases in northern Arkansas—the closest was just 14 miles from the Missouri border.  In areas where the disease has been confirmed in the state, MDC has implemented a management plan, and there’s one ready to go for southern Missouri if needed.

"Move it into what's called a CWD Management Zone.  We do a different harvest, no baiting and then trying to keep deer from moving outside of that management zone if possible," he said.

CWD is a central nervous system disease, according to Humble.  Deer infected with it eventually waste away to nothing.  The mutated protein can be active in the soil for an undetermined amount of time and can be spread from contaminated soil or from cervid to cervid.

"A deer can be in an area that's infected from prions from excrement, from urine or feces from a deer, and con contract the disease by that," he said.

According to Humble, anytime you have a disease that’s 100 percent fatal to deer, it’s a concern for MDC.  But he’s pleased that they’ve been able to maintain prevalence rates in the state to two to three percent.  He said that shows that it’s not moving at a rapid rate.

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