Wildlife officials bracing for spread of fatal deer disease

Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal prion disease that does not appear to be transmissible to humans, was first found in Virginia deer in 2009. File photo. Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal prion disease that does not appear to be transmissible to humans, was first found in Virginia deer in 2009. File photo.

The symptoms of Chronic Wasting Disease in deer read like something out of a horror movie: emaciation, a lolling head, an odor of rotting meat, and—invisible until autopsy—a spongy degeneration of the brain.

CWD is a prion disease affecting cervids—elk, moose, and our own white-tailed deer. Like mad cow in cattle and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in humans, it’s believed to be caused not by microbes but by misfolded proteins, which trigger a chain reaction in the brains and bodies of infected animals, and, inevitably, death. And despite the best efforts of the state’s wildlife experts to keep it out, the disease is here in Virginia.

Matt Knox, a deer project coordinator with Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), has watched the disease spread over the course of his 30-year career in wildlife management. The first hints that there was a serious problem with deer and elk populations out West came in the early 1980s.

“When I first heard about CWD, it didn’t exist in the East,” he said. But when deer breeding operations began sprouting around the country in the years that followed, disease rates shot up. That’s because CWD is highly transmissible, at least among deer (there’s no good evidence humans can contract it, but officials recommend avoiding the meat of infected animals).

In 2002, the first case of CWD appeared east of the Mississippi. “That was the shot heard ’round the world in deer management,” said Knox. The disease arrived in West Virginia in 2005, and the first infected deer in Virginia showed up in western Frederick County four years later. Four more cases of CWD have surfaced in the Commonwealth since, all within a few miles of the West Virginia border.

Virginia was about as prepared as it could have been, said Knox, passing a number of new regulations that will help contain the disease before it can get a strong foothold here. Deer farming is outlawed, as is the transport of live animals.

“But once you’ve got it, all you can do is keep it contained,” he said, something that’s at the forefront of DGIF officials’ minds as hunting season approaches. “It’s like fighting a fire—you have to take away the fuel. And the fuel is deer.”

Within a designated containment area in Frederick County, hunters are required to bring all deer killed in the first three days of general firearms season to test stations, where Knox and other DGIF officials remove the animals’ lymph nodes for testing, allowing them to monitor the occurrence and spread of CWD. Meanwhile, officials in Shenandoah National Park, located just 25 miles from the containment area, are keeping close tabs on the disease, and recently held a series of public information sessions on plans to stop the spread to park deer.

The best weapon against CWD right now is education, according to Knox. But even with hunters participating in testing and people around the state helping slow the spread, “we fully expect that it will creep across the landscape.”

Did you know that white-tailed deer were almost extinct in Virginia in the 1930s? Now they’re numerous enough that you have a 1 percent chance of hitting one with your car in any given year. For more on how the species’ bounceback has come with serious issues for Virginia, visit www.pecva.org/deer.