Tribal Hunters Help Fight Chronic Wasting Disease

Bull elk
Bull elk like this one are at risk for chronic wasting
disease. Photo: D. Preston

OLYMPIA (Oct. 31, 2002) – Tribal hunters are working with the state of Washington to make sure the words “mad deer disease” never become a frightening part of the local vocabulary.

Representatives from treaty tribes in Western Washington were trained in October on procedures designed to identify chronic wasting disease in deer and elk. Chronic wasting disease, a wildlife ailment affecting the central nervous system, is a progressive and always fatal illness related to mad cow disease.
“No one is more concerned about the health and long-term viability of deer and elk stocks than the tribes,” said Todd Wilbur, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission’s Inter-tribal Hunting Committee. “We want to make sure we
stop any potential health problems within herds before they start in earnest.”
To date, no deer or elk with chronic wasting disease have been found in Washington — though the disease has been tracked in nine states and two Canadian provinces since first being discovered in Colorado in 1967.
“We want to be vigilant,” said Wilbur. “Hopefully, we can prevent this from becoming a problem here.”
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been testing deer and elk for chronic wasting disease since 1995. Last year, testing efforts involved sampling animals who were taken by hunters or killed along roads at various checkstations. But the program needed expansion, as many watersheds were not being sampled.
“Tribal hunters hunt throughout the state of Washington, so tribes are uniquely well-suited to keep tabs on deer and elk herds,” said Wilbur. “We’re happy to play a role in this effort, and we think it shows why tribal natural resource efforts can be so effective.”
Testing for chronic wasting disease is done by scientists in a laboratory, but couldn’t take place without hunters. Tribal hunters are being trained to remove the brain stem from harvested animals and preserve the organ for later analysis.
Sometimes, the way a deer or elk acts can be a clue as to whether it has been infected. Animals with chronic wasting disease may appear emaciated, uncoordinated or lacking energy. To date, there have been no confirmed cases of wasting disease being transmitted from deer or elk to humans. Still, reasonable precautions should be taken.
Hunters are advised to wear rubber gloves while field dressing any deer or elk, and to avoid consumption of various components of any harvested animals’ nervous system, such as the brain.
“The first step to solving a problem is awareness, and we’re trying to help spread
awareness,” said Wilbur. “It would be nice, though, if the tests we’re doing now
can help prevent the outbreak of a problem altogether.” – J. Shaw