Chronic wasting disease, the sickness that affects elk, deer and moose and has been reported in 24 states including parts of the states of Montana, Utah and Wyoming, may be knocking on Idaho’s door but no reports have been logged in the Gem state.
In an effort to proactively monitor Panhandle deer and elk herds for the illness, Idaho Fish and Game is asking hunters this season to drop off tissue samples at big game check stations, and turn in the heads of road killed deer, so they can be sampled for CWD.
“Biologists will be operating check stations around the region this fall where samples will be taken,” Micah Ellstrom, Regional Wildlife Manager said. “Samples are collected by removing the lymph nodes located near the base of the deer’s jaw.”
People who salvage road kills are encouraged to bring the deer’s head to the regional office in Coeur d’Alene, and the department has freezers set up in Bonners Ferry and Sagle as drop-off points.
Anyone who deposits the head of a road-killed deer should add specific information including where the deer was killed — a highway and milepost marker — and the date.
Dubbed “zombie” deer disease, CWD was first detected in the early 1960s in penned deer in Colorado, and by 1981 the deadly disease was found in wild populations.
Symptoms, which can take more than a year to develop, include drastic weight loss, lack of coordination, listlessness, drooling, excessive thirst or urination, drooping ears, lack of fear of people and aggression.
“It can have potential population-level effects on big game herds,” Ellstrom said. “It’s something we’re really serious about.”
The state two years ago set up a rotational sampling system in which Fish and Game solicits samples from hunters in different parts of the state.
The latest effort, which includes the Idaho Panhandle, seeks to collect a sample size big enough to reasonably assure its veracity.
“We want a really good spread from throughout the far reaches of the region,” Ellstrom said.
Since testing began, no cases of CWD have been found in Idaho, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, no cases of the disease spreading to humans has been documented.
“... There is no strong evidence that humans can acquire CWD,” Ellstrom said. “(But) it is recommended to have deer and elk tested if they were harvested in a known CWD-positive area, and to not consume meat from CWD-infected animals.”
The effect of the disease on deer populations can be devastating, Ellstrom said, and the spread of the disease once it’s established can be hard to stem.
Chronic wasting disease is a kind of illness known as prion diseases that spread as proteins affecting deer’s brains and spinal cords by damaging normal proteins. The bad proteins can live residually in the environment and spread by decaying carcasses, saliva and feces or droppings.
“It can live in soil for years,” Ellstrom said. “There is some literature that shows plants can potentially take in (the affected proteins).
A freezer in Bonners Ferry is located at Far North Outfitters, 6791 S. Main St.; and in Sagle at the WaterLife Discovery Center, 1591 Lakeshore Drive. Each freezer has instructions attached to it and tags to be filled out for each head delivered.
Animals showing disease symptoms should be reported to a Fish and Game officer, or office, or to the Wildlife Health Laboratory at 208-939-9171.
Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at email@example.com.