Cases of chronic wasting disease in North Dakota deer have jumped significantly, though wildlife experts say the spread is to be expected and has not yet progressed to the eastern part of the state.
Eight deer killed by hunters last fall tested positive for the fatal disease that strikes the nervous system in deer, elk and moose, according to Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for the state Game and Fish Department.
That boosts the total number of confirmed cases in hunter-killed deer since 2009 to 24 -- a 50% increase. A white-tailed deer found dead and emaciated by a landowner near Williston last February also died from the disease. It was the first natural CWD death documented in the state.
Chronic wasting can lead to long-term population declines if left unchecked. It has been a problem in other parts of the country for decades. North Dakota had been somewhat of an island, staying free of CWD despite being nearly surrounded by states and Canadian provinces with the disease in wild or captive animal populations, according to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance. That changed when the first case was confirmed in a deer shot by a hunter in fall 2009 in south central North Dakota.
More cases followed in that hunting unit, 3F2. In recent years the disease also has been confirmed in two northwestern units, 3A1 and 3B1, and in Unit 4B in the west central part of the state, in the Badlands.
Testing of deer heads submitted by hunters during last fall’s gun season led to six more confirmed cases in 3F2 and two more in 3A1.
“Only about 15% of hunters submit heads for testing in units where CWD has been found, so the infection rate is more meaningful than the raw number of positive animals found,” Bahnson said. “Approximately 3% of harvested mule deer were infected with CWD in Unit 3F2, and roughly 2% in Unit 3A1. Our infection rate in whitetails in 3F2 was about 1%.
“Overall, we could probably live with these current infection rates long-term, but they suggest an upward trend and we’ve certainly seen an expansion in the known distribution of the disease,” Bahnson said. “We need to continue to try to limit the spread within our herds as best as we can.”
Game and Fish does that in a number of ways. They include baiting bans in infected units and some neighboring units, to prevent deer from congregating and spreading the disease. The movements of certain deer parts is restricted from CWD units in the state and from about two dozen other states where chronic wasting is present, including South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota, along with some Canadian provinces including Saskatchewan.
Wildlife officials will be discussing control efforts and whether any more measures are warranted, state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said.
“We will be meeting over the next month to discuss CWD issues before the 2020 proclamation is recommended to the governor,” he said. The governor by law must sign off on all hunting rules and regulations.
The increase in CWD cases in North Dakota is not a surprise, even with 11 cases being detected since Sept. 1, according to Williams and Bahnson.
“Like any transmissible disease, it tends to start slow and slowly spreads,” Williams said.
But Bahnson noted that CWD was not detected in any deer harvested in eastern North Dakota, where hunter-harvested surveillance was conducted last fall, and that no elk or moose in the state have tested positive.
Deer hunting, besides being a hobby and tradition for many in North Dakota, is an industry worth tens of millions of dollars to the state. Each resident deer hunter spends about seven days in the field, spending on average about $136 each day. Nonresident hunters average about five days afield and spend $226 daily, according to state Tourism Division data.
No CWD infections have been reported in people, but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hunters have animals tested if they’re from areas where the disease is present and not eat meat from infected animals.
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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