DNR discusses CWD with local hunters
By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor
Iowa DNR officials spoke with dozens of local deer hunters in Monona April 22, in the first of three informational meetings held last week in Allamakee and Clayton Counties to discuss the department’s plans to deal with chronic wasting disease (CWD).
A sample from a deer shot near Harper’s Ferry, in Allamakee County, during Iowa’s first shotgun season recently tested positive for CWD, the state’s first positive test in a wild deer. The disease had previously been found in only captive deer.
“I appreciate your attendance. It shows that you really care about the state’s deer resources,” said Terry Haindfield, Iowa DNR wildlife biologist and deer sampling contact in the Upper Iowa unit of the state, which includes Mitchell, Howard, Winneshiek, Fayette, Allamakee and Clayton Counties.
“This is a meeting we didn’t ever want to have, but we knew it was inevitable since CWD is in wild deer in all the states around us,” added Iowa DNR Director Chuck Gipp. “The wild deer herd is a very important resource. If we can isolate it, we can hopefully slow it down or get rid of it. That’s why we need your help. There are a lot of question and rumors, so we’re going to clear that up with this meeting.”
What is CWD?
According to Dr. Dale Garner, Iowa DNR Wildlife Bureau chief, who started the meeting with a presentation, CWD is a neurological disease of deer and elk that belongs to the family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) or prion diseases. It shares features with mad cow disease in bovine and scrapie in sheep. Although it also shares features with the human TSE Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, there is no scientific evidence that CWD, or the consumption of infected meat, can infect humans. However, the World Health Organization recommends that humans do not eat the brain, eyeballs or spinal cord of an infected deer. Hunters should also wear protective gloves when field dressing an animal.
The disease attacks the brains of infected deer, causing the animal to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior and lose bodily function. Symptoms include excessive salivation, loss of appetite, progressive weight loss, excessive thirst and urination, listlessness, teeth grinding, holding the head in a lowered position and drooping ears. An animal can be exposed for 16 months to three years before showing signs of infection. There is currently no treatment and the disease is always fatal.
CWD, said Garner, should not be confused with epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), which is caused by biting midges and was found in the area the last two years. EHD causes internal hemorrhaging in the deer, usually within days of infection.
“An EHD deer won’t have a loss of body condition because it would die within 24 to 48 hours after infection. But a deer in the late stages of it, that is going to live, could look like a deer in the late stages of CWD,” Garner said. “[With CWD] the hip bones and backbone will stick out and the deer will be emaciated. It’s basically dead on its feet. An animal on the road can also look bad. A lot of things could mimic CWD.”
Garner said CWD is spread through natural deer movement, from animal to animal in the wild or through movement of captive deer. It can also spread environmentally or through the introduction of infected materials carrying prions. Deer saliva and urine is currently used in mice to find how CWD is passed from one animal to another.
“Once the prion gets on something, it doesn’t take much change to alter and get something else,” Garner said, explaining that infectivity goes up when prions bond with soil. “I can’t tell you how it got here, whether captive or natural. I don’t know how much prion an animal has to ingest before it’s infected. Supposedly, one deer has enough prion in it to infect every deer in North America.”
CWD is difficult to inactivate and persists in the environment. Garner told the crowd a story about how, in Iceland, a facility with scrapie-infected sheep was eradicated, with only one hut left behind. Sixteen years later, new sheep were brought back in, only to become infected with scrapie.
The disease was first found in 1967, in deer and elk in a research facility in Colorado. Sheep with scrapie were located nearby. In 1978, CWD was first recognized as a TSE and, in 1985, it was first found in wild deer in Colorado and Wyoming. In 2001, 159 samples yielded three positive tests in wild deer in Wisconsin’s Iowa and Dane Counties. The following year, Iowa began testing and formed a plan to deal with the threat.
According to Haindfield, since 2002, the DNR has tested roughly 50,000 wild deer samples and over 4,000 captive deer and elk in Iowa. Last year, 300 deer, or 12 percent of those reportedly killed in Allamakee County, were tested.
Once CWD was found in Wisconsin, Garner said the Iowa DNR also enacted a response plan through which the agency would 1) confirm a positive test in a wild deer, 2) keep the public informed and 3) use additional surveillance to determine the magnitude and geographic extent of the threat.
For the next three years, Garner said the DNR will increase testing in Allamakee and Clayton Counties, hopefully gathering 500 samples in each. He and other officials encouraged hunters to consider getting their deer tested. He said they are especially interested in deer harvested on the islands near Harpers Ferry.
“It appears the [Mississippi River] is somewhat of a barrier, but deer can swim,” he said. “It’s just a hop, skip and a jump to Wisconsin. That’s why we’re doing genetic testing.”
Garner said the DNR is currently working with an Iowa State University geneticist to determine if the animal that tested positive is genetically-similar to Wisconsin deer, if it crossed the river.
The DNR would also like the public to report road kills in southeast Allamakee County or suspicious-looking or sick deer found in northeast Iowa in the off season. In order for the sample to be good, it must be harvested within a few days of the deer’s death, especially as the weather warms up. Fawns cannot be tested. (The contact numbers are listed in the graphic next to this article.)
The deer’s lymph nodes and brain stem are needed for testing, with both sent to the lab in case one goes bad. Haindfield said taxidermists have been especially helpful in providing good samples of mature bucks. He reassured hunters that samples can also be taken without destroying a mountable head.
In the event of a positive test, Garner said the DNR contacts the hunter, verifying where the deer was killed. They also ask if the hunter wants to keep the meat, then disposes of it if the hunter does not. The hunter will also be asked about the disposal of the carcass.
“Beware of where you’re burying it. Don’t just throw it on the back 40 or in the ground near a water source,” Garner recommended. “Bury it six feet deep to keep away from scavengers or take it to a landfill.”
If a deer has been tested, the officials warned that meat lockers will likely not accept the meat, as a potential positive sample could scare business away or lead to meat recalls.
If there are no more CWD cases in the next three years, Garner said the DNR will return to its routine sampling. However, if there are more positive tests, he said the DNR will hold more informational meetings to discuss the options.
“We’ll have to wait and see. There aren’t many options,” he said, mentioning that not all of the samples from the last hunting season have been tested yet. “I think this is an isolated case. Out of 300 samples, this was the only one. We want to stop this before it gets worse. It’s easier to deal with when it’s small.”
Garner said the Iowa DNR has learned many lessons from other CWD states, including neighboring Wisconsin, which killed deer through elevated hunting and sharp shooting in a CWD hot spot in order to try to get the disease under control. Although Garner defended the Wisconsin DNR’s actions, he said Iowa hunters should not be worried about that happening in Iowa since there is only one case.
“They believed they had a hot spot, so they put those out, but it was too late,” he said. “The disease had already spread. We’re way ahead of where Wisconsin was in 2002.”
Director Gipp also reassured the crowd that no special tags will be issued for the area.
Throughout the night, Garner and other DNR officials reiterated the importance of catching CWD early, stressing hunters’ importance in helping control and eradicate the disease.
“If we can get it early, we can get rid of it, but it’s up to you,” Garner said, speaking to the hunters. “What you do or don’t do today has ramifications for your kids and grandkids down the road. Deer hunting is part of the heritage of Iowa and a recreational activity in Iowa. It is part of what we do at the DNR, so deer are very important.”
Aside from the state’s heritage, Garner said deer hunting contributes $200 million to the state economy each year and supports 2,800 jobs.
Gipp added that Iowans sometimes take that contribution for granted.
“If not for deer and hunting opportunities, we wouldn’t have a lot of things,” he said. “Hunting is a way of life.”