GRAND FORKS - Chronic wasting disease has been in the news again this week with the report that a deer in Houston County in far southeast Minnesota tested “presumptive positive” for the disease.
In a news release Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said confirmation was expected, which will mean the first confirmed case of CWD in Houston County since testing began in 2002.
Now, it appears CWD also is making inroads in North Dakota, where a deer in Unit 3A1 initially has tested positive for the disease.
As in Houston County, the case would be the first for northwest North Dakota.
According to Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, the deer was a mule deer buck shot in the northwest portion of Unit 3A1
As with any initial results that come back positive, a sample from the deer has been sent to a second lab for confirmation, Williams said. Results from that second test aren’t yet available, but the department has never had an initial positive come back negative in secondary testing, he said.
“We are operating under the assumption that it is” positive, Williams said Friday.
An acronym that has become all too familiar in recent years, CWD is a brain disease that’s fatal to deer, elk and moose. The DNR has been battling pockets of the disease in southeast and central Minnesota for several years with special hunts, feeding bans and similar restrictions.
In North Dakota, CWD had been confined to deer hunting Unit 3F2 in the far southwest part of the state, where testing already has found two more initial positives this year, Williams said.
North Dakota’s first CWD case was confirmed in 2009, when a mule deer shot by a hunter in 3F2 tested positive. Including this year’s two initial positives, that makes 11 cases of CWD in 3F2 and one likely case in 3A1, Williams said.
While disappointing, the news of an initial positive in northwest North Dakota isn’t a surprise, Williams said. The department has been watching that part of the state since last spring, when a deer just 7 miles across the border in Saskatchewan tested positive; CWD also has been found in neighboring Montana.
During an advisory board meeting Nov. 27 in Fordville, N.D., before news of the initial positive in 3A1, Williams said the department already was considering steps, including a baiting ban, to reduce the risk of CWD in northwest North Dakota because of its proximity to the Saskatchewan case.
North Dakota for years has prohibited baiting in 3F2 and has implemented restrictions on importing whole carcasses of deer, elk or moose from states and provinces where CWD exists; in addition, whole carcasses can’t be taken outside 3F2.
The import restrictions include no spinal column or brain matter.
Battling CWD is difficult because the disease isn’t caused by a bacteria or virus that eventually runs its course. Instead, CWD is triggered by an abnormal cellular protein called a prion, and once on the landscape, it’s there to stay, Williams says.
The prion can be transmitted through feces, saliva, urine and other bodily fluids when deer are drawn into close contact at baiting sites.
“Since we first had CWD on the landscape in 2009, there’s been a lot learned and a lot more research, a lot more discussion on CWD the last 10 years in a lot of states,” Williams said in an interview before deer season. “And the bottom line is that any of the information that has come out in the last 10 years hasn’t been good.
“There’s nothing good that gives us a thought process that we need to lessen our restrictions and regulations on CWD.”
Whether additional CWD cases pop up in northwest North Dakota remains to be seen. The department will issue a news release once all of the test results are complete, Williams says, but one thing is for sure: There will be changes.
“We haven’t received all the information back yet on all of our tests,” he said Friday. “Who knows? There could be some additional ones, too.”
Williams said Game and Fish will recommend baiting bans in 3A1 and perhaps adjacent units such as 3A2 and 3A3. Hunters also can expect an import restriction on deer from 3A1, he said. The goal is to keep the number of cases to a minimum.
“Basically, everything points toward being more restrictive on CWD to try and do our best job in making sure we’re fulfilling our responsibility in protecting North Dakota’s deer herd as best we can,” Williams said. “And obviously, we need help from the sporting public to do that.”
More information on CWD is available by going to the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov and typing “chronic wasting disease” in the search window.