One Month After Deadly Idaho Deer Disease Found, Data, Funding May Be On The Road | Outside
Nicole Blanchard Statesman of Idaho
BOISE – When Idaho officials confirmed the state’s first cases of chronic wasting disease, a deadly disease that affects deer species, the news was expected. Yet reality hit Rick Ward like a ton of bricks.
âIn my 20s or so in the wildlife profession, one of the worst days was the day I found out we had CWD in Idaho,â said Ward, wildlife manager for the area. ‘Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The disease causes certain death for deer, elk and moose and can lead to significant declines in animal populations. Once chronic wasting disease infects an area, it cannot be eradicated. Ward said his presence in Idaho likely signifies a paradigm shift in how the state has long handled deer species, although there is little research on the best ways to deal with infected herds.
The CWD has had a presence in neighboring states for decades, moving closer to the state borders of Idaho. Since 1997, Fish and Game has been testing deer captured by hunters – mostly at state borders – while waiting for the day the chronic wasting disease arrives in Idaho.
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Ward and his fish and game cohorts mobilized quickly after the disease was confirmed in mid-November. A week after the discovery was made public, the Fish and Game Commission created a chronic wasting disease management area and announced surveillance hunts to determine the prevalence of the disease.
Meanwhile, local wildlife advocates and the Idaho congressional delegation worked to secure funding for research into the little-understood disease, which attacks the brain and causes infected animals to lose weight, consciousness and fear of humans.
Fish and Game OKs surveillance hunts
Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a contagious disease caused by malformed proteins called prions. Mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and scrapie are in the same family. There is no cure for the disease.
It has only been identified in two animals in Idaho – mule deer killed by hunters in Unit 14, a geographic hunting area near Riggins. The deer were slaughtered a few hundred yards from each other.
âI was very surprised,â Ward said. âNot that he appeared in the state. We expected it to appear eventually.
But wildlife managers believed they would find the first cases along the Wyoming or Montana border, where the chronic wasting disease manifested itself miles away from Idaho. The cases were much closer to the Oregon and Washington borders – states that have no confirmed cases of CWD.
“(We) are trying to figure it out, did we just pick up those two dollars and there are a lot more infected animals that we hadn’t detected?” Ward said.
This is why the commission has set up its surveillance hunts. Fish and Game donated 1,500 tags across the unit where the infected deer were found and neighboring units. The hunts began on December 7th. Ward said the department hopes to find out the prevalence of chronic wasting disease and its extent. Authorities also want to know if it’s in other species – CWD can affect deer, elk and moose.
“If it’s in mule deer, there’s a high probability that it’s in white-tailed deer,” Ward said.
Some hunters are reluctant to hunt CWD deer
But some Idaho hunters have balked at emergency hunting, which takes place during the winter, the most difficult time of year for wildlife.
Aaron Poloni, a Meridian hunter, told the Idaho Statesman in response to a prompt for this story on the Idaho Hunt and Fish Facebook group that he thought killing deer in their wintering area was a bad idea.
âI would like to see Fish and Game focus their efforts on significant sampling in areas of concern the next hunting season through checkpoints and voluntary submission,â said Poloni.
Ward admitted that the hunts are not ideal, but the information they will provide is invaluable, he said. There is no way to test for chronic wasting disease in a living animal. Ward said the short-term impacts on the population of the hunt will be easier for the animals to recover than the long-term impacts of a contagious disease left behind.
âIt’s a tough pill to swallow, especially the woodless harvest,â Ward said. âFor me, it is much more important to master the extent of CWD. “
Many hunters agree. Brent Varriale, of Fruitland, said he understood the reluctance of other hunters. But as a vet, he said, he believes Fish and Game is taking the right approach in the face of a potentially devastating disease.
âAt the start, when you see they want to do the emergency hunt, the thought is, ‘Wow, that’s a big hunk of deer,’â Varriale said over the phone. “It’s probably the hunter in me who doesn’t want the opportunities to disappear or our deer population to decline.” But from a practical standpoint, we really need to know how bad the problem is. You can’t handle a problem without knowing how serious it is.
Varriale said he has many of the same questions as Ward’s: How did the chronic wasting disease spread in mid-Idaho and where did it spread? He said he hopes other hunters will understand that the 1,500 surveillance hunt tags are not a random number but a number needed for Fish and Game to get a reliable sample to create an appropriate management plan.
According to Ward, a management plan will be developed with input from the public and the Fish and Game Commission once the results of the monitoring hunt are complete.
Chris Minter, another hunter from Idaho, said in a Facebook comment that he was already prepared to submit all of his future deer harvests to CWD testing. If an animal tests positive, all meat and body parts will need to be discarded, as health experts urge people to avoid consuming or handling contaminated animals.
Several hunters have told the Statesman that it would be difficult and disappointing to lose a deer to a positive MDC result, but it was worth it to stay safe and keep an eye out for disease. Ward said the support of the hunters will be essential going forward.
âThe states that have been successful in containing the CWD, the main tool are the hunters,â Ward said. âThe public is a great resource in this regard. Trying to collect samples without public input would be wrong. “
Idaho Congressmen Call for CWD Research Funding
Much of CWD is not yet clear – where it comes from, how to treat it, and whether vaccines can be used to prevent it. As the disease continues to spread in the United States, wildlife officials and advocates are calling for more research into the disease.
âThere is definitely a need for more CWD research. It’s surprising how few there are, âsaid Ward. âThat’s it, from the physiology side to population management. “
Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, has spent the past few weeks urging the Idaho congressional delegation to vote in favor of a bill that would allocate funds to research and disease mitigation chronic debilitating.
The Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act was introduced to Congress in October by U.S. Representative Ron Kind, D-Wisc., Whose home state has struggled with CWD for nearly 20 years. The legislation would spend $ 70 million per year for five years to research the detection of the disease in live animals, its control in infected animals and its management in wild populations.
âThere are going to be changes coming to Idaho,â Brooks said. âIf we are to minimize the impacts of CWD, we will have to pay for mitigation efforts. That is what this bill does.
Already, the legislation has the support of Republican congressmen in Idaho. U.S. Representative Mike Simpson signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill on November 30, two weeks after Idaho’s first cases were publicly confirmed. He and U.S. Representative Russ Fulcher, who represents northern and western Idaho, voted in favor of the legislation when it was passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. House on December 8. when he gets to the Senate. A spokesperson for Risch said the senator “understands the serious concerns about chronic wasting disease and has supported legislative efforts to combat it.”
Brooks said he was also hoping for state-level changes, particularly with regard to testing and restrictions for deer and elk farms. These facilities can be conduits for CWD when wild animals enter or captives escape.
âFor a long time, Idaho performed very strict CWD testing for domestic and imported products (deer and elk),â Brooks said. âA few years ago these were gutted, frankly. We must seriously consider doing all we can to ensure that these populations are not vectors. “