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Chronic Wasting Disease poses threat to deer in New York

With deer season upon us and the early archery season in New York’s Southern Zone underway, it’s important to emphasize the threat that Chronic Wasting Disease is to the state’s deer population. Precautions need to be taken and the state's Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Agriculture and Markets have made it a priority to keep CWD out of the state.

Simply put, CWD is a fatal disease for deer, elk, moose and caribou/reindeer. It is caused by an abnormal protein referred to as a prion, and it’s from the same family of diseases as Mad Cow Disease. CWD was first discovered in Colorado in 1967 and it has been found in 25 states and 3 provinces in Canada.

CWD was identified in the Empire State in two captive deer facilities in 2005 and in two wild deer nearby, all in Central New York. Since that time, no additional cases have been found. New York is now the only state not to detect CWD after the initial outbreak. This is extremely fortunate for New York hunters and the rest of the state.

According to recent statistics, whitetail deer hunting in New York is valued at $1.5 billion annually, a boon to the rural communities and small businesses across the state. Take that away and you will encounter some severe economic issues, not to mention the loss of venison as a sustainable food source.

“DEC is working hard to keep the state’s wild deer herd free from CWD,” says Ryan Rockefeller, DEC’s Region 9 Big Game Biologist, “but we need help from hunters. Report sick deer or deer behaving abnormally. Don’t import a whole carcass or intact trophy head of a deer, elk or moose from out of state. Debone your deer before you bring it back to New York. Use synthetic urine scent or lure products.”

CWD is highly contagious and always is fatal. The prions can be transferred by animal-to-animal contact directly or indirectly through contaminated carcasses, parts or contaminated environments. The prions can bind to soil and plants, infecting an area that can last for many years. As a result, the state increased enforcement in 2018, with environmental conservation officers confiscating and destroying deer that illegally were brought in from states where CWD has been found.

“In 2018, DEC tested 2,483 harvested deer across the state and found no evidence of Chronic Wasting Disease,” Rockefeller said. “For diseases like CWD, prevention is the most effective management policy.”

Distribution of Chronic Wasting Disease in North America. (Graphic courtesy of USGS)

The good thing (if there is anything good associated with CWD) is that there are no known cases of humans contracting ill effects from consuming an infected deer. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that no one consume an animal with CWD. If you are hunting in a CWD-positive area, such as nearby Pennsylvania, it is recommended that hunters strongly consider getting their deer tested before consuming its meat. The Pennsylvania Game Commission will test deer for free. However, in New York, there is a fee to test deer.

This is not meant as a scare tactic. It should not keep people from hunting and harvesting a deer in New York. It is meant to educate sportsmen and women about the seriousness of the potential problem and that hunters should be engaged in helping to protect this valuable natural resource. If you have knowledge of someone who has hunted out of state and has not gone through the process of deboning the meat or cleaning a skull cap with detached antlers, you should report the violators to an environmental conservation officer by calling 877-457-5680. At the top of the list needs to be taxidermists and deer processors, since they are the front line of seeing the most deer, as well as elk and moose from out of state.

Nothing is absolute. We can do everything right and still encounter CWD in New York should an infected animal wander over from Pennsylvania. Which is all the more reason why we need to remain vigilant. Something as simple as not feeding wild deer could provide a necessary precaution from possible expansion of the disease. Feeding deer unnaturally concentrates animals around a food source and it potentially could be a way for disease transmission to occur.

Once the disease has a foothold in a geographic area, it’s difficult to contain. For example, in Wisconsin, where CWD was detected in 2002, there are some counties where 50 percent of adult males and 30 percent of females are infected. It also decreases the life expectancy of a deer, from 5.2 years for mule deer without the disease in Colorado to just 1.6 years for infected mulies. It’s a wake-up call we need to be cognizant of when hunting out of state.

Initially, there is no way to detect if a deer, elk or moose has contracted CWD. It may be more than a year before they show visible signs. When they do start showing signs, though, they may appear to be extremely thin with bones showing, drooling, walking in circles and have droopy ears. While there are other diseases that may have similar symptoms, don’t take any chances and call 844-332-3267 as soon as possible.

In the meantime, DEC and DAM will continue to monitor state deer populations through random testing. Should a deer test positive, the agencies have a response plan to minimize risk and prohibit movement of the disease. Learn more about CWD by visiting www.dec.ny.gov.

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