Department of Fish and Wildlife Explore Fatal Contagion

For a little over two weeks, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has been testing both deer and elk carcasses for chronic wasting disease. The contagious, neurodegenerative disease has been spreading throughout deer and elk populations around the country, but biologists are uncertain whether either species has been afflicted locally. 

Similarly to mad cow, chronic wasting disease is progressive and always fatal. It typically affects adult animals – the youngest animal diagnosed was 17 months – and causes them to have difficulty moving, lose weight, interact less with other animals, become nervous, and undergo other behavioral changes as well. Animals are also known to salivate and consume more water, which is thought to contribute to the spreading of the disease.

Deer and elk can transmit the disease both directly and indirectly, whether they come into contact with a contaminated animal, or they happen to be in a contaminated animal’s shared environment. Once in the environment, a prion – an abnormal protein found in the central nervous system that transmits the disease – can remain infectious for years. 

Dissimilarly to mad cow, the disease hasn’t been known to transmit to humans – whether through direct contact or consumption – but research is still being conducted in this area. However, humans still play a role in the transmission process as they transport carcasses to new areas, often across state lines.

Currently, the only way to diagnose the disease is to examine an expired animal, which is why ODFW biologists are asking hunters to check their deer and elk carcasses at designated stations. It isn’t a requirement, but little is known regarding the disease’s effect on humans, so the more that get tested, the better.  

Testing stations have been set up along Interstate 84 in Biggs, and on U.S. Highway 26 near Prineville. Stations test around 150 deer or elk a day, which only take about 10 minutes per animal. 

Drivers should be aware; the disease has been known to cause infected animals to move to lower elevations, which forces them to encounter more roads, cars, and heavily populated areas. 

If you hunt deer or elk near one of the stations listed above, take the time to get any carcasses you may have tested. Not only will you help biologists determine if populations in Oregon have been exposed, but you also help further their understanding of the disease as a whole. 

By Nick Stollings