The mad cow disease of deer is closing in on Kentucky. Here’s what hunters can expect.

White-tailed deer in Eastern Kentucky
White-tailed deer in Eastern Kentucky Herald-Leader file photo

It’s been called the mad cow disease of deer, and with increasing concern over its possible transmission to humans, the plight of Chronic Wasting Disease seems to be drawing ever-closer to Kentucky’s borders.

If the disease manages to hop the state line, it could have dramatic impacts on Kentucky’s deer and elk populations, and possibly on human health. It would also mean big changes for Kentucky hunters.

CWD has emerged as a concerning and sometimes controversial topic in the national hunting community. Stricter harvest regulations have caused grumbles in states where the disease is prevalent, and one major, lingering question hangs over every conversation: Can CWD be transferred to humans?

The answer isn’t clear, but ongoing research suggests it’s possible. Officials with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources said that uncertainty makes it even more imperative for the state to ready itself as the disease closes in.

“We don’t want it here, and if it does come, we want to catch it early,” said Christine Casey, a wildlife veterinarian with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Of the seven states that border Kentucky, just one, Indiana, has had no confirmed cases of CWD in deer populations — Ohio found CWD in a captive herd in 2018, but not in free-ranging deer. The closest CWD-infected animals were found less than 100 miles from the Kentucky border, in Missouri and Tennessee.

CWD map
Chronic Wasting Disease has been found within 80 miles of Kentucky’s western border. Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Department’s CWD Response Plan lays out a number of changes to harvest regulations if CWD jumps the border:

Mandatory check stations for all deer harvested within a 30-mile radius of the CWD-positive deer

A prohibition on the transportation of the carcass parts of deer killed within the 30-mile radius

A ban on baiting and feeding of deer within the county where the CWD-positive deer is found, and a ban in all adjacent counties.

The state will also aim to lower the number and density of deer in CWD-positive areas, so hunters would likely see an increase in the number of deer they’re allowed to kill.

“We use hunting as the management tool to keep the population in control,” said Gabe Jenkins, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife’s deer and elk program coordinator. “We want to make sure we involve our hunters and engage them and have their support.”

Jenkins said he knows not all hunters will be happy with the new regulations if they go into effect.

“We will experience some blowback. There’s a lot of people that just don’t believe CWD is a threat,” Jenkins said.

Hunters, particularly in the Eastern U.S., see that states in the West still hold large deer and elk populations despite CWD’s prevalence. That leads some to discount the disease’s potential impact, or that it exists at all, Jenkins said.

“That’s very childish thinking,” Jenkins said. “This is something, with CWD, that might not potentially ever go away.”

Jenkins asked all Kentucky residents to call the Department of Fish and Wildlife whenever they see a sick deer or elk.

CWD was first found in Colorado and Wyoming more than 30 years ago. It jumped the Mississippi River in 2002, and has grown ever since.

According to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife’s report, the disease has been found in 26 states, four Canadian provinces and the country of Norway. While the majority of hot spots remain in the Western U.S., state game agencies east of the Mississippi are readying themselves for its continuous spread.

To date, the department has tested more than 30,000 free-ranging deer in Kentucky for CWD. All tests have come back negative.

The disease is fatal to all deer and elk it infects, but it can take years to materialize. That allows infected deer to continue to spread the illness even while they appear healthy.

Jenkins said the potential human impact could lead Kentucky hunters to stop hunting, and could push non-resident hunters to states where CWD hasn’t been detected.

That could be a big financial hit for the department, especially as hunter numbers have declined in recent years. State game agencies, which manage and conduct research on game and non-game fish and wildlife species, receive most of their funding through hunting tags and licenses.

“If you want to manage wildlife in general, you need a good hunter base to have the funding,” Jenkins said.

Like mad cow disease, CWD is caused by an infected protein that’s spread through saliva and other bodily fluids. Scrapie, found in sheep, is also a caused by those proteins, called prions.

In humans, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is caused by prions, is rare but can have devastating effects before the infected person dies. Those can include blindness, weakness and mental disturbances, including memory loss and fatal insomnia.

Unlike other diseases that impact deer populations — Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, commonly called Blue Tongue, is the most well-known, and killed hundreds of deer in Eastern Kentucky in 2017 — there are no known antibodies for CWD.

That means deer populations can’t build up a resistance, so impacts on populations could be dramatic over time.

“That’s so outside the realm of what normal disease are caused by,” Casey said of prion diseases. “They’re nasty, and we don’t want it.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.
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