NY State On Watch For
Mad Deer Disease
By Dan Shapley
Poughkeepsie Journal

It's the mad cow disease of deer and elk, and experts fear it could be coming our way.
Chronic wasting disease -- only documented west of the Mississippi, with the exception of Wisconsin -- has the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on its toes as the first year of widespread testing nears its end and another hunting season opens.
Hunting season with guns begins Monday.
The disease attacks the brains of deer and elk. As their brains waste away, so does the animals' self-sufficiency.
Officials stress hunters have no reason to avoid hunting, nor to avoid eating what they kill.
There is no evidence of the disease in the state, and no evidence the disease can spread from deer to humans.
''However, if you look at the geographic expansion of the disease in the last few years, it would appear that this would continue to expand,'' DEC wildlife pathologist Ward Stone said. ''It looks to me like it's going to march across the country.''
Strict controls in place
The state has instituted strict controls on the importation of deer and elk to the state's 400 farms. Dutchess has 10 captive deer farms, and Ulster has two, Department of Agriculture and Markets spokeswoman Jessica Chittenden said.
The state has also banned deer feeding be-cause some feeds contain rendered meat that could spread the disease, and because diseases -- wheth-er chronic wasting disease, rabies or others -- are most likely to spread when animals congregate in one place.
Poughkeepsie resident Daniel Rivera is well aware of chronic wasting disease and its manifestations in deer. He said he hasn't had any luck during bow season, but is hoping to eat what he kills when gun season begins Monday.
''I love venison, and if I can take a couple off the road that are going to kill someone, I'll do it,'' he said.
Unusual as diseases go, chronic wasting disease is not caused by a living organism like a virus or bacteria, but by a rogue protein called a prion.
The prion infiltrates cells and changes healthy proteins into prions -- the same mechanism that causes mad cow disease in livestock, scrapies in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
''It acts like an infectious disease, but it has no DNA, no RNA. It doesn't meet the definition of a living thing,'' Stone said. ''It's almost like something that came from an alien planet.''
After a year in which West Nile virus spread exponentially coast-to-coast, sickening more than 3,500 and killing about 200, the public has a better appreciation of the importance of wildlife diseases.
Chronic wasting disease is still endemic in relatively small pockets of a few states, but it had an historic expansion in recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
First described in 1967
First described clinically in Colorado research facilities in 1967, chronic wasting disease was found in wild deer for the first time -- in Colorado and Wyoming -- in the 1980s.
Since 1996, the disease was diagnosed in farmed elk herds in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and the Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In just the last two years, the disease has been also been found in many wild deer populations -- in Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Colorado and the Canadian Province of Saskatchewan.
''Where we're likely to see the deer (disease), if we do see it, is the elk and deer farms. That's the problem,'' Stone said of the potential for spread to New York.
He said he suspects it may already be present in some captive herds in the state, and would like to see mandatory testing of captive herds. Submission of dead deer for testing is voluntary, Stone said.
The DEC had tested 282 animals -- mostly white-tailed deer, but also some elk and moose -- as of Thursday. None showed signs of chronic wasting disease. Another 241 animals were pending laboratory results, Stone said.
Of those, 14 Dutchess County deer have not shown signs of the disease, and 44 are awaiting testing. In Ulster County, 13 have shown no signs of disease, and two are pending lab tests.
The brain stem, tonsils and lymph nodes of deer hit by cars are tested, as well as some of those killed by hunters or land owners with nuisance permits.
The tissue specimens are tested at Department of Agriculture labs in Ames, Iowa, but the necropsies are performed at a DEC lab in Delmar, Albany County.
The Department of Agriculture and Markets tests captive deer, and has completed 25 tests -- none of which have shown evidence of the disease.
Emaciated or strangely-behaving deer are the most important to test, Stone said.
Chronic wasting disease, true to its name, causes a deterioration of the brain called encephalopathy. Brain tissue affected by the disease, magnified by microscope, will appear sponge-like, with holes where the disease has damaged the brain.
Final stages rapid
Infected animals can carry the disease for more than a year before declining rapidly in the late-stages of the disease. Symptoms include emaciation, messy fur, trouble walking, limp ears, unusual thirst and an inability to recognize danger.
Pleasant Valley resident William Conners, vice president of the New York State Conservation Council, recommends hunters look out for the symptoms when they get deer in their sites.
However, he stressed there is no known danger to hunters -- both because the disease hasn't been found here, and because the disease hasn't been shown to spread from deer to humans.
''I think every hunter and every person needs to exercise due diligence,'' he said. ''If an animal is acting strangely, let it pass by.''


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