A homeowner near the Ingham County town of Haslett, saw a sickly-looking deer acting abnormally back in April. Concerned, the resident called the local police department and an officer came out and dispatched the obviously sick deer.
Testing at Michigan’s animal health lab in Lansing and at the U.S. Dept. of Ag. veterinary lab in Ames, Iowa confirmed the worst case scenario – the six-year-old doe was infected with chronic wasting disease.
The DNR announced this week that Michigan now joins 22 other states and two Canadian provinces that have found CWD-infected animals.
Chronic wasting disease is a contagious, always-fatal, neurological disease that affects cervids – deer, elk and moose. It is neither a virus nor a bacterial infection. CWD is caused by an abnormal protein (prion) that causes lesions on the brain and slowly but surely kills its victim. In the scientific community it is classified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), which is similar to mad cow disease (in cattle) and scrapie (in sheep).
Infected animals are often grotesquely skinny. They lose their fear of humans and are basically oblivious to their surroundings. They experience loss of body functions and often drool profusely and bob their heads in the later stages of the disease.
Even worse is the fact that symptoms of CWD don’t usually appear until the animal is 18 month old or older. It is most often found in 3- to 5-year-olds. However, those older animals could have been infected for a number of years and possibly spread the abnormal prions into the environment and to other cervids.
It is believed that the abnormal prions are passed from one animal to another through saliva, urine and feces. It also may be passed down from a doe to her fawn(s).
Environmental contamination is another possible vector for spreading the disease. Studies show that areas that held CWD-infected animals had been depopulated and left empty for a number of years. When the area was repopulated, the new animals contracted the disease.
There’s no evidence that CWD presents a risk to humans or other mammals from contact with an infected animal or from handling contaminated venison. However, federal health officials recommend that infected animals not be consumed by either humans or domestic animals.
Michigan developed a CWD response plan back in 2002 when the deadly disease surfaced in neighboring Wisconsin. The plan was updated in 2012 following our first dealings with CWD – found in 2008 in a captive deer on a whitetail breeding farm in Kent County.
The Michigan Surveillance and Response plan for Chronic Wasting Disease is now being implemented. It calls for: increased surveillance in the infected area – using sharpshooters to cull deer in the area of the outbreak so wildlife managers can learn the extent of the outbreak; conducting a population survey in the area where the CWD-positive deer was found; establishing a Core CWD Area consisting of Alaiedon, Delhi, Lansing, Meridian, Wheatfield and Williamstown townships in Ingham County; Bath and DeWitt townships in Clinton County; and Woodhull Township in Shiawassee County; issuing unlimited antlerless deer hunting licenses in the affected area; and enacting mandatory checking of deer in the Core CWD Area during hunting seasons.
The order also creates a CWD Management Zone that includes Clinton, Ingham and Shiawassee counties. Feeding and baiting of deer in the CWD Management Zone is prohibited as is possession of salvaged or road-killed deer.
State officials are asking residents to call (517) 336-5030 to report the location of road-killed deer within this area so DNR staff can pick up the carcass for testing.
The outlook is not bright, but it also is not hopeless.
Because of the CWD plight in Wisconsin, Michigan wildlife managers had the foresight to establish, then update, a CWD response plan.
Only two of the 23 states with CWD – Minnesota and New York – have been able to aggressively manage the disease and keep it from spreading. Fortunately Michigan knows what those states did to corral CWD and DNR Director Keith Creagh confirmed that Michigan is conducting a similar response.