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One month after fatal disease was found in Idaho deer, here’s what is being done about it

Idaho Fish and Game wildlife biologist Iver Hull takes a chronic wasting disease sample from a deer harvested by a hunter. | Roger Phillips, Idaho Fish and Game
(IDAHO STATESMAN) — When Idaho officials confirmed the state’s first cases of chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness that affects deer species, the news was expected. Still, the reality hit Rick Ward like a ton of bricks, he told the Idaho Statesman.
“In 20-some years in the wildlife profession, one of the worst days was the day I found out we had CWD in Idaho,” said Ward, state wildlife manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The disease means certain death for deer, elk and moose and can cause serious population declines in the animals. Once chronic wasting disease infects an area, it can’t be eradicated. Ward said its presence in Idaho likely means a paradigm shift in how the state has long managed deer species, though there’s little research on the best ways to manage infected herds.
CWD has been present in neighboring states for decades, creeping closer to Idaho state lines. Since 1997, Fish and Game has been testing deer harvested by hunters — primarily on state borders — awaiting the day chronic wasting disease would arrive in Idaho.
Ward and his Fish and Game cohorts mobilized quickly after the disease was confirmed in mid-November. A week after the discovery was made public, the Fish and Game Commission created a chronic wasting disease management zone and announced surveillance hunts meant to determine the disease’s prevalence.
Meanwhile, local wildlife advocates and Idaho’s congressional delegation have worked to secure funding to research the little-understood disease, which attacks the brain and causes infected animals to lose weight, awareness and fear of humans.
Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a contagious disease caused by malformed proteins called prions. It’s in the same family as mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and scrapies. There’s no treatment for the disease.
It has only been identified in two Idaho animals — mule deer bucks killed by hunters in Unit 14, a geographic hunting area near Riggins. The deer were harvested just a few hundred yards apart.
“I was very surprised,” Ward said. “Not that it showed up in the state. We’ve been expecting that it would eventually show up.”
But wildlife managers thought they’d find the first cases along the border of Wyoming or Montana, where chronic wasting disease has shown up miles from Idaho. The cases were much closer to the Oregon and Washington borders — states that don’t have any confirmed cases of CWD.
“(We’re) trying to figure out, did we just happen to pick up these two bucks, and there are a lot more infected animals around that we hadn’t detected?” Ward said.
That’s why the commission set up its surveillance hunts. Fish and Game offered 1,500 tags across the unit where the infected deer were found and neighboring units. The hunts began Dec. 7. Ward said the department is hoping to find out how prevalent chronic wasting disease is and how widespread it may be. Officials also want to know if it’s in other species — CWD can affect deer, elk and moose.
“If it’s in mule deer, there’s a high likelihood it’s in whitetail deer,” Ward said.
But some Idaho hunters have balked at the emergency hunt, which includes young “antlerless” males and takes place during winter, the hardest time of the year for wildlife.
Aaron Poloni, a hunter from Meridian, told the Idaho Statesman in response to a prompt for this story in the Idaho Hunt and Fish Facebook group that he thinks killing the deer on their wintering range is a bad idea.
“I’d like to see Fish and Game focus their efforts on heavy sampling from the areas of concern next hunting season through checkpoints and voluntary submission,” Poloni said.
Ward admitted the hunts aren’t ideal, but the information they’ll provide is invaluable, he said. There’s no way to test for chronic wasting disease in a live animal. Ward said the short-term population impacts from the hunt will be easier for animals to recover from than the long-term impacts of a contagious disease left to run rampant.
“It is a tough pill to swallow, especially the antlerless harvest,” Ward said. “To me, it’s much more important to get our arms around the extent of CWD.”
Many hunters agree. Brent Varriale, of Fruitland, said he understands the hesitance from fellow hunters. But as a veterinarian, he said, he thinks Fish and Game is taking the right approach to a potentially devastating illness.
“Initially when you see they want to do the emergency hunt, the thought is, ‘Wow, that’s a big chunk of deer,’ ” Varriale said by phone. “That’s probably the hunter in me that doesn’t want to see opportunities go away or our deer population decline. But from a practical standpoint, we really do need to know how severe the problem is. You can’t manage a problem without knowing how severe it is.”
Varriale said he has a lot of the same questions as Ward — how did chronic wasting disease get to the middle of Idaho, and where else has it spread? He said he hopes other hunters understand the 1,500 surveillance hunt tags aren’t a random number but a figure necessary for Fish and Game to get a reliable sample to create an appropriate management plan.
According to Ward, a management plan will be developed with input from the public and Fish and Game Commission once the results of the surveillance hunt are complete.
Chris Minter, another Idaho hunter, said in a Facebook comment that he’s already prepared to submit all his future deer harvests for CWD testing. If an animal tests positive, all meat and any body parts will have to be thrown away, as health experts urge people to avoid consuming or handling contaminated animals.
Several hunters told the Statesman it would be difficult and disappointing to lose a deer to a positive CWD result, but worth it to stay safe and keep tabs on the disease. Ward said the hunters’ support will be key going forward.
“States that have had success keeping CWD contained, the primary tool is hunters,” Ward said. “The public is a great resource in that regard. Trying to collect samples without public input wouldn’t sit well with anybody.”
Much about CWD is still unclear — where it came from, how to treat it, and whether vaccines can be used to prevent it. As the illness continues to spread across the U.S., wildlife officials and advocates are calling for more research on the disease.
“There is definitely a need for more CWD research. It’s surprising how little is out there,” Ward said. “That’s everything from the physiology side of it all the way up to population management.”
Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, has spent recent weeks urging Idaho’s congressional delegation to vote in support of a bill that would allot funding to chronic wasting disease research and mitigation.
The Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act was introduced in Congress in October by U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisc., whose home state has been dealing with CWD for nearly 20 years. The legislation would put $70 million annually for five years toward research on detecting the disease in live animals, suppressing it in infected animals and managing it in wild populations.
“There are going to be changes coming to Idaho,” Brooks said. “If we want to keep the impacts of CWD to a minimum, we’re going to need to pay for mitigation efforts. That’s what this bill does.”
Already the legislation has support from Idaho’s Republican congressmen. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson of East Idaho signed on as a co-sponsor to the bill on Nov. 30, two weeks after Idaho’s first cases were publicly confirmed. He and U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North and West Idaho, voted in favor of the legislation when it overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House on Dec. 8. It’s not clear how Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch will vote on the bill when it reaches the Senate. A spokesman for Risch said the senator “understands the serious concerns about chronic wasting disease and has supported legislative efforts to combat it.”
Brooks said he’s also hopeful for changes on the state level, particularly around testing and restrictions for deer and elk farms. Those facilities can be conduits for CWD as wild animals enter or captive ones escape.
“For a long time, Idaho had very strict CWD testing for domestic and imported (deer and elk),” Brooks said. “A few years back, those were gutted, frankly. We need to take a serious look at doing everything else we possibly can so those populations aren’t vectors.”
The post One month after fatal disease was found in Idaho deer, here’s what is being done about it appeared first on East Idaho News.

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