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DNR testing deer heads for chronic wasting disease as more are infected

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

All through this deer hunting season, Michigan hunters are bringing their deer to check stations to be tested for a disease called chronic wasting disease (CWD).

It's turning up again in deer in our state, which is why the Department of Natural Resources is keeping a close eye on this threat.

Chad Stewart, a deer specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), joined Stateside to talk about the disease and what the MDNR is doing to combat it.

Listen above for the full conversation, or read highlights below.

On what the disease is

“Chronic wasting disease is a slow-moving but progressive disease that affects the central nervous system of members of the deer family. It’s caused by something called a prion, and a prion is a misshapen protein. So, what happens is the deer ingest these prions and over time it slowly degrades the central nervous system, especially the brain of the animal, and basically causes it to lose neurological functioning over the course of about, on average, a year and a half to two years.”

“The deer remain infectious throughout their entire lifecycle, even when they’re not, what we call, symptomatic. And the prions are generally passed through bodily fluids, so saliva, feces, urine, and obviously with deer being social animals it’s easy to pass it from one animal to another. The more insidious part of this disease is that these prions really resist any sort of degradation, so they can remain in the environment for years — potentially decades — so one deer can infect another deer without ever coming into direct contact with it.”

On what’s being done

“There’s really no way to eradicate the disease, and that’s what the challenge is: Once you have it, you have it because of the environmental contamination component. So really what it amounts to is really focusing on some of those social groups that have it where we have known CWD-positive animals. We try to conduct very intensive management in those areas, so removing more deer than you typically would see from general hunting, and we try to supplement it that way. In the meantime, we’re doing surveillance in the surrounding areas. So we’re picking up roadkill deer, we’re having hunters submit deer for sampling, to constantly check what the boundaries of our known CWD area is in the state.”

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