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Michigan officials search for deer infected with fatal disease

Last week, state officials confirmed they found chronic wasting diseasein a wild deer for the first time. Michigan now joins 22 states and two Canadian provinces where the disease has been found.

Chronic wasting disease was found in a captive deer in Kent County in 2008. This spring, a homeowner in Ingham County reported a sickly-looking deer wandering in their front yard, and that deer is the first free-ranging deer to test positive for CWD in Michigan.

Now, the DNR wants to find out how many more wild deer could be sick, and whether this is an isolated incident or the beginning of a bigger outbreak.

A deadly disease with no cure

It’s contagious, it affects deer, moose and elk and it’s always fatal.

“It creates microscopic holes in the brain resulting in severe neurologic disease and ultimately the death of the animal," says Dr. Steve Schmitt. He’s the veterinarian-in-charge with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

If you see a deer that could be infected with chronic wasting disease, DNR officials want you to call them at 517-336-5030.

We’re looking through a window into a high security area called a Biosafety Level 3 lab at MSU's Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health.

“That’s where we do wear respirators. All air that comes in has to go out through HEPA filters. There’s where we do bovine tuberculosis, we do our chronic wasting disease work in there, and we can actually handle anthrax in there,” he says.

The state's CWD plan: Cull and test

Schmitt says they’re bringing in road-killed deer to this lab to test them.

“It's been shown that road-killed animals are more likely to have CWD, and the reason for that: if you have these microscopic holes in your brain, this severe neurologic disease, you’re more likely to step out in front of a car,” says Schmitt.

The discovery of chronic wasting disease in this free-ranging deer kick-started the state’sCWDplan. It means state officials will kill deer in a two-mile radius around where the wild deer tested positive. They’ll then test them.

Here's more on the CWD plan from the MDNR:

The plan was developed in 2002 through cooperation between the DNR and MDARD, and was updated in 2012. Actions the DNR will take include: Completing a population survey in the area where the CWD-positive deer was found. Establishing a Core CWD Area consisting of Alaiedon, Delhi, Lansing, Meridian, Wheatfield and Williamstown townships in Ingham County; Bath and DeWitt townships in Clinton County; and Woodhull Township in Shiawassee County. Unlimited antlerless deer hunting licenses will be available. Mandatory checking of deer will be required in this area during hunting seasons and restrictions will apply to the movement of carcasses and parts of deer taken in this area. Creating a CWD Management Zone, which will include Clinton, Ingham and Shiawassee counties. Implementing a deer and elk feeding and baiting ban, which will include the Core CWD Area and the larger three-county CWD Management Zone. Prohibiting the possession or salvage of deer killed by collision with a motor vehicle within the Core CWD Area. Also, residents are asked to call in the locations of road-killed deer within this area so DNR staff can pick up for testing. Research shows CWD-infected deer are more likely to be hit by vehicles because of their illness.

Recommendations for hunters

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Mandatory checking of deer for the disease will be required in nine townships.

The DNR will also require all hunters in nine townships in the core CWD area to have their deer tested, and Schmitt says any hunter outside that area who wants to have their deer tested can.

Officials say if a deer tests positive for CWD, you shouldn’t eat it.

Bryan Richards, the emerging diseases coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center says:

“To date, there’s no true evidence that CWD has crossed into humans and is therefore a human pathogen, but there’s always the possibility that disease could transmit into humans. The risk is very, very low but it certainly is not zero. So, most health organizations have recommended that if you’re hunting in an area where CWD is known to exist, that you have that deer tested for disease, and if it comes back positive, that you not consume it,” says Richards.

Chronic wasting disease is a tough disease to manage. That’s partly because deer can be infected for several years before they show any symptoms. 

State officials say they’ve tested thousands of deer since 1998 and haven’t detected an outbreak yet.

One of the ways the disease can spread is when deer gather. So the state’s CWD plan includes a ban on baiting and feeding of deer in Clinton, Shiawassee, and Ingham counties.

“We’re certainly hearing some resistance to the baiting and feeding bans in those three counties,” says Amy Trotter, the deputy director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

She says they’re encouraging hunters to comply.

“Baiting and feeding is a way this disease can be transmitted, and frankly, it’s one of the only vectors we can control.”

What to watch for

If you see a strange-looking deer, DNR officials want you to let them know by calling 517-336-5030, or by submitting an online report. Deer with chronic wasting disease get very thin and can start drooling. They also become tame and less afraid of people. 

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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