By MIKE CORN
The search for chronic wasting disease spread to eastern Kansas, but the only cases found so far this year hail from northwest Kansas.
At least five samples -- all taken from animals considered either sick or suspicious acting or killed in vehicle crashes -- have tested positive, according to Shane Hesting, the wildlife disease coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Two of the five came from Rawlins County, while one each was found in Decatur, Sherman and Sheridan counties.
With 26 positive samples so far, Decatur County continues to lead the state in the sheer number of animals that have tested positive. So far, 60 animals suffering from the always-fatal, brain-wasting disease have been confirmed, all but one of them free-ranging animals.
The disease first was discovered in the wild in 2005, in a white-tailed doe killed along the South Fork of the Republican River northwest of St. Francis in Cheyenne County.
Since then, it slowly has spread to the southeast, where it has been found as far away as in Ellis, Smith and Ford counties.
Reductions in federal grants have forced the state wildlife agency to pare back its testing regimen, now sampling less than 500 animals each year.
Hesting said they've only sampled about 350 animals so far this year in the eastern third of the state -- where the focus centered. But it's been a struggle getting sample to conduct the tests, he said.
Colby-based KDWP&T game warden Mike Hopper actively has sought out samples from deer either killed as it crossed the highway or looked sick or was acting suspicious.
Four of the positive samples this year came from animals considered either sick or suspicious.
Those four include the two in Rawlins County, as well as one each from Decatur and Sheridan counties. The Sherman County positive was a 3.5 year-old buck that was killed by a motor vehicle.
All five positives this year were white-tailed deer.
Finding sick and suspicious animals means the disease is maturing, gaining a stronghold in an area.
"It takes 2.5 years, pretty much, to go through infection to chronic," Hesting said of the infection process.
That also means the prevalence of animals infected with the disease is likely sharply higher in areas where there's a stronghold.
Decatur and Rawlins counties would be among those areas, based only on the number of animals that have tested positive.
Hesting isn't sure what the rate of prevalence might be.
Finding infected deer in northwest Kansas was expected, he said.
"The good thing is we didn't find any in the east yet," Hesting said.
There's little that can be done to slow the rate of infection, other than employ the use of sharpshooters.
"That's not very popular," Hesting said.
That was done in both Cheyenne and Decatur counties early on, and didn't lead to finding many infected animals.
Likely, he said, that's because the disease hadn't been in the state long enough to take root.
Because the number of samples taken so far are still well below what was projected, Hesting said the sampling process will likely continue through May.
Next year, the sampling focus will shift to the south-central part of the state.
"We'll continue to do it as long as people think it's the right thing to do," he said of the testing process. "But I think it's important."