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Biologists Hope Public Monitoring Will Slow Spread Of Deadly Deer Disease

Jeff Bryant via flickr creative commons

Wildlife scientists want southern Iowans to help monitor deer for chronic wasting disease. CWD is now in three counties in the state but conservationists are hopeful early intervention can slow its spread.

This past hunting season a wild doe in Wayne County tested positive for chronic wasting disease. That’s the first case outside of the northeast part of the state. The infection first surfaced in Iowa in Allamakee County in 2013, and spread to Clayton County in 2016.

Compared to neighboring states, Iowa has relatively lower levels of exposure to CWD. Conservationists in Wisconsin and Nebraska have been trying to control the disease for over a decade. Wildlife biologists are monitoring susceptible areas and hope to insulate Iowa as much as they can. Now the state's Department of Natural Resources is relying on southern Iowa residents to help contain CWD, says scientist Terry Haindfield.

“Prevention is way less expensive than trying to manage the disease once it gets a good foothold. So early activity of management will be much better in an attempt to stop or slow the disease,” Haindfield said.

"The number one thing that we're asking the public and the hunters and the landowners to do is allow us to do sampling." - Terry Haindfield, Iowa DNR

Haindfield says the top priority is to collect tissue samples from areas that may be affected. The state routinely tests about 15 deer from each county each year. But wildlife biologists may run as many as 250 screenings in at-risk areas. Haindfield says he needs the public's help in getting those samples.

“The number one thing that we’re asking the public and the hunters and the landowners to do is allow us to do sampling so we can intensively look at these areas there, as far as what the distribution of the disease may be and also then what the prevalence rate would be,” Haindfield said.

That means hunters letting the state test their kills before they process the animals. He's also asking residents to remove deer feed and mineral blocks, which can attract large numbers of animals and therefore have a greater chance of speeding up transmission. Drivers in affected areas can report roadkill as well. And any resident should notify the DNR if they see a deer that may be infected. Symptoms include weight loss, abnormal salivation, abnormal behavior and listlessness. 

There’s no strong evidence CWD affects humans or cattle, although research has shown macaques, a kind of monkey, have contracted the disease after eating infected meat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend not eating any meat that has tested positive for CWD.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.