Last fall, two deer from Stafford County tested positive for chronic wasting disease, a contagious disease that’s always fatal to deer, elk and moose.
At roughly 60 miles away, it’s the closest the disease has been detected in deer near Wichita.
Shane Hesting, wildlife disease coordinator for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said biologists are hoping to test samples from 458 deer from south-central Kansas during the ongoing deer seasons to check on the spread of the disease.
For years scientists said the disease could not be passed to livestock or humans. Now, a recent study has some rethinking the possibility.
Justin Greenlee, a research veterinarian at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa, said a German study showed the CWD prions had been passed to macaque monkeys by feeding them meat that contained CWD and by blowing the prions into the animal’s nasal passages.
“It’s an intriguing finding, but it doesn’t completely answer the questions of if it can be passed to humans,” said Greenlee, who said the disease had never been passed to mice that had been genetically altered to duplicate parts of the human system. “There’s a lot we still need to learn.”
There’s also the fact an estimated 10,000 hunters unknowingly eat the venison from a diseased deer they’ve killed each year, according to Hesting. So far, the disease has shown no definite signs of spreading to those humans.
No matter, Hesting said the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention now “strongly recommends” all hunters get their deer tested for the disease before eating the venison.
“We shouldn’t panic about this,” Hesting said. “There’s risk with everything we do. We can manage this risk by having deer tested.”
Chronic wasting disease first was detected along the Colorado/Wyoming border in the mid-1960s. For approximately 30 years, it spread slowly on it’s own.
Greenlee said the spread intensified during the past 20 years, largely by infected captive deer being transported to deer or elk farms in new areas. The disease was quickly spread to nearby wild herds.
Biologists also believe hunters who have shot infected deer in one state might have transported CWD to another when they disposed of the bones of those deer or elk in the countryside. The prions that cause CWD have a long shelf life in soil.
Greenlee said the prions that cause scrapies, a closely related disease in sheep, have stayed viable in the soil for 15 years. Currently 22 states and two Canadian provinces have reported cases of CWD.
Kansas began testing some deer shot by hunters, killed on highways or that appeared ill, since 1996. A captive bull elk brought in from another state was found to have the disease in Harper County in 2001. The first case in a wild deer was in extreme northwest Kanas in 2005.
Since, the disease has steadily spread to the south and west.
“We’ve had 144 positive cases since we started testing, but 50 percent of those came from three counties in northwest Kansas,” Hesting said. “That’s our hot zone, up in Decatur, Rawlins and Sheridan counties.”
The disease has been documented in all northwest Kansas counties and as far east as Jewell County, which is along the Nebraska border in the middle of the state. Many southwest Kansas counties also have had positive deer, including Meade County, near the Oklahoma border.
Hesting said Wildlife and Parks tests the glands from several hundred deer in one of five regions of Kansas every year, plus any animals that appear ill from other parts of the state. They also get the results when hunters pay to have their own deer tested from any part of Kansas.
Last year, the department tested hunter-killed deer from eastern Kansas. All came back negative.
Thirteen deer from other parts of the state tested positive. Most were from western Kansas. And then there were the two from Stafford County, both within a few miles of the Reno County line.
Hesting said one animal was obviously ill, and its tissue was sent in after it was euthanized. The other deer from Stafford County came yards from a very well-known location — the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
“It was just a stone’s throw from (Quivira’s) headquarters, just off the southwest corner of the refuge,” Hesting said. “It was a healthy looking buck that was shot by a hunter (on nearby private land). He took it to his taxidermist in the Kansas City area, and they went ahead and sent it in for testing. It came back positive.”
That’s particularly alarming since Quivira often has some of the highest deer densities in the state. The lands around the refuge are some of the most coveted to be purchased or leased for hunting deer and waterfowl.
Hesting and Greenlee think the disease will continue it’s way eastward across Kansas, and may come in from other borders.
“It’s moved from west to east across most of Nebraska,” he said. “It’s also popped up in St. Clair County, Missouri. That’s one county of our southeast (Kansas) line. It’s now in Arkansas, 120 miles from us, too.”