Several captive elk in Colorado have tested positive for chronic wasting disease. This fatal neurological ailment attacks an animal’s brain, slowly eating away healthy tissue. Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has also spread to the wild deer population near the Colorado and Wyoming border. That’s prompted wildlife officials in the Midwest to begin looking for CWD in their wild deer herds. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby visited one such testing site in rural Wisconsin and filed this report:
Several captive elk in Colorado have tested positive for chronic wasting disease. This fatal neurological ailment attacks an animal’s brain, slowly eating away healthy tissue. Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has also spread to the wild deer population near the Colorado and Wyoming border. That’s prompted wildlife officials in the Great Lakes region to begin looking for CWD in their wild deer herds. Todd Melby of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium visited one such testing site in rural Wisconsin and filed this report.
The opening of the deer-hunting season in Wisconsin is a big day for Pauline Nol. But it’s not because she’s a hunter. Nol is a veterinarian. Instead of wearing a blaze orange vest, Nol sports a blue Dickie jumpsuit. She’ll need it to keep the blood of dead deer from staining her clothes.
(sound of medical instruments, followed by background sound of Nol and another vet moving instruments around on a table)
Nol and another veterinarian are arranging medical instruments on a folding table. It’s the kind of portable table you might find in a school cafeteria or church basement. Only today, the table is set up outside, in the parking lot of a Department of Natural Resources building just outside Spooner, a small town in northwestern Wisconsin.
In about a half hour, hunters will be pulling up in their pickup trucks to register deer they’ve shot just this morning. When they do, Nol, who works at the Department of Interior’s National Wildlife Health Center, will ask hunters if she might take a few samples from the carcass. The purpose: To check for chronic wasting disease.
Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological illness that is part of the same family of diseases as scrapies in sheep, mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. CWD destroys a deer’s brain and is always fatal. Before death, the infected animal seems listless, confused and often stumbles around aimlessly.
There is concern among some people that CWD may be transmittable to humans. Yet many states in the Great Lakes region, such as nearby Minnesota, have just begun testing for CWD in wild deer herds. While it still seems limited to captive herds, officials are worried the disease could spread. Dennis Stauffer is a spokesman for the Minnesota DNR.
“The greatest problem, we think, in terms of not just the animals but in terms of human health is if this gets into the wild population. That would be, I think, very problematic. Because then once it’s no longer just limited to captive animals, then you have a real issue of how in the world do you get to it and eradicate it.”
In Wisconsin, veterinarians like Nol, have been testing dead deer since 1999. So far, the news has been good. No cases of CWD have been detected in the state’s wild deer herds.
(sound from deer testing station: Cars on nearby two-lane highway)
Back at the parking lot, employees are now ready to tag incoming deer. And that’s got Nol busy too. She strolls over to a couple standing next to a dead buck resting its head on the tailgate of a red pickup.
“Who got the deer this morning? That would be you? Congratulations. That’s great, that’s really great. So, we’re doing some sampling for looking at different diseases in the deer herd. So we’re wondering if we could take some samples from your deer?”
The pair agrees and Nol gets busy. The first thing she does is pull the deer’s head beyond the edge of the tailgate. And then she begins slicing through the fur and into the neck.
“What I’m doing is I’m making a cut in the neck just behind the jaw line. And that exposes the base of the brain, the brain stem and those lymph nodes we’re looking for.”
The lymph nodes are tested for bovine tuberculosis, or TB, a disease that’s been found in Michigan’s free-ranging deer herd since 1994. Wisconsin began testing deer for TB in 1996 and has yet to find an incidence of the disease.
The man who shot the deer is Tom Hack of Hartford, Wisconsin. Once the brain stem, lymph nodes and blood samples are analyzed back at Nol’s lab, Hack will be notified of the results.
There’s been no evidence linking CWD to humans. However, the state is testing deer for diseases and I ask Hack if that gives him pause.
“Well, sure. If I’m going to be eating the meat. Yeah, yeah it would worry me.”
“So, are you going to wait until you get the postcard back before you eat the meat?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
A little later, I catch up with Ken Jonas. He’s a wildlife biologist with the state DNR. This morning, he shot a deer himself. And now he’s tagging animals nabbed by other hunters. I ask him if hunters should wait until they receive their postcards back in the mail before eating the meat.
“No. Again, we consider all the deer currently to be safe in the state of Wisconsin. The monitoring is being done to determine if there is a problem at this point in time. We have no detects of either of those diseases in the wild herd.”
The reason for the testing, Jonas says, isn’t to let individual hunters know of a personal health risk, but to see if CWD has found its way into the state’s wild deer herds. For the Great Lake Radio Consortium, I’m Todd Melby in Minneapolis.