New testing methods for deer ailment

Lymph glands will be checked for chronic wasting disease.
Friday, September 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:41 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

While chronic wasting disease has yet to appear in Missouri’s white-tailed deer herd, state wildlife researchers remain persistent in their testing for the fatal illness.

This deer season, Boone will be one of 30 counties in Missouri randomly selected as a testing site for chronic wasting disease, the neurological disease that has crippled deer and elk herds in several Midwestern and northern states.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has tested deer at hunting checkpoints throughout the state for the past two years.

Jeff Beringer, a research scientist with the department, said this will be the second year of extensive testing. Only sick deer were tested the first year.

During firearms season in November and December, hunters will be asked to volunteer a physical sample from their game when they take it to one of two checkpoints in the county. A lymph gland will be removed from the neck of the deer by a checkpoint worker and sent off for lab analysis. Beringer, who is leading the state’s testing effort, said the required scalpel incision won’t disfigure the animal. Previous testing required cutting off the entire head.

“It’s a quick, easy process,” research scientist Lonnie Hansen explained.

“They’ll just pluck the lymph gland out of the neck,” Beringer said, adding he’s grateful for the cooperation the department gets. “Hunters are essential to this effort. Without them, this couldn’t happen.”

The Department of Conservation plans to collect 200 samples from each of the 30 counties. They will be sent to a laboratory at the University of Wyoming that is designed to handle a large-scale analysis. Beringer hopes to gather the majority of samples on Nov. 15 and 16, the opening weekend of the firearms season.

Brad Holt hunts deer in Boone and Mercer counties during the archery and firearms seasons. He said the testing won’t disfigure a kill, and he will provide a sample if asked.

“This sounds like something serious that they need to check out,” Holt said of the disease.

Hansen said chronic wasting disease is not considered a threat to human health. There have been no recorded illnesses or deaths related to chronic wasting disease among the nation’s 16 million deer hunters.

“We’ve kept things pretty low-key,” Hansen said.

Chronic wasting disease has hit hard elsewhere. In southern Wisconsin, the Department of Conservation killed 15,000 deer in a 361-square-mile area where the herd had been tainted by the disease. Other states with recorded instances of the illness include Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

It is not clear how the disease is spread, although abnormal proteins are believed to be at the root of the problem. The incubation period is three to five months; symptoms include emaciation and staggered movement.

“The disease, which occurs mostly in adult animals, is progressive and always fatal,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said in a declaration of emergency in 2001. “The origins and transmission of CWD are unknown.”

The conservation department asks that hunters report any deer they believe to be contaminated with chronic wasting disease by calling 882-9880.

Hunters should take precautions when cleaning deer, even though the disease is not believed to be a health hazard, Beringer said. When butchering or cleaning deer, hunters should wear sanitary gloves and remove all bones from the meat.

“The precautions are the same as before chronic wasting disease,” Beringer said. “Hunters just need to be safe.”

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