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Wasting disease found in state deer

by Bryan Hendricks | March 10, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission confirmed Wednesday that a female white-tailed deer found dead in Ponca last month has tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

Commission personnel found the deer 12 miles from Pruitt, a Newton County community north of Jasper, where the state's first case of chronic wasting disease was confirmed Feb. 23. The first case was an elk that a hunter killed in October during the annual elk hunting season.

Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disorder known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that affects cervids like white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose.

About 308,000 Arkansans hunt deer annually in the state. Since 2012, hunters have killed more than 200,000 deer annually.

The spread of chronic wasting disease could devastate Arkansas' deer herd, which is estimated at about 1 million animals, and the state's relatively small elk herd of about 600 animals.

Cory Gray, the Game and Fish Commission's deer project coordinator, said staff members at the commission's elk education center in Ponca noticed a deer exhibiting chronic wasting disease symptoms earlier this year. Symptoms include excessive thirst, excessive salivation, unsteady gait, wobbliness, wide-legged stance, drooping head and lowered ears, Gray said.

A wildlife biologist found the deer's carcass Feb. 2 and removed a portion of its brain for testing, Gray said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notified the commission Wednesday that the sample tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

"It hurts because it's no longer isolated," Gray said. "We thought that the elk was an isolated case, but now we're going to sample to see if we can find clusters of deer with chronic wasting disease."

Gray said that in white-tailed deer, chronic wasting disease tends to occur in clusters within a radius of 2 miles.

Since Monday, Game and Fish Commission personnel and private landowners have been killing deer and elk for sampling within a 5-mile radius of where the diseased elk was killed. Commission personnel have tested nine deer and seven elk, Gray said. Five of the elk tested negative for chronic wasting disease. Results for two elk or for the deer are not yet available, Gray said.

Three of the elk that tested negative were killed in Boxley Valley, a popular Newton County place for the public to watch and photograph elk. The other elk that tested negative was killed in Richland Valley, near the confluence of Richland Creek and the Buffalo River.

"There are a lot of cervids in the Boxley Valley area, so that's a cause for concern," Gray said.

According to the commission's chronic wasting disease response plan, biologists would ordinarily begin sampling within a new 5-mile radius of where the deer was found. Because the elk and deer cases' epicenters were so close, the commission will connect those two points to create a sampling area that looks like a long oval instead of a circle, Gray said.

The commission will stick to its original plan to kill about 300 deer for sampling, but Gray said the samples will be taken from a larger area than originally planned.

"It's based on population size and not necessarily area, and 300 is the maximum number for that population density," Gray said. "We'll sample all we can from Ponca and try to find what the prevalence is in that area."

The commission is also testing any deer that have been killed by vehicles. Cervids afflicted with chronic wasting disease often stand in roads and won't move away from approaching vehicles.

"You have a higher probability of detecting chronic wasting disease in road kills," Gray said.

Hunters killed nearly 2,700 deer in Newton County in 2015-16, which Gray said is about 30 percent of the county's deer population.

Chronic wasting disease is believed to be caused by pathogenic proteins called prions that destroy the animal's central nervous system. Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies are always fatal and are not preventable.

Prions are passed among the animals through bodily fluids, including saliva. They can also be ingested from grasses and other forage on which an infected animal has urinated or salivated at any time in the past. Chronic wasting disease can exist indefinitely in the soil and can be uploaded and stored in plants.

A variant called mad cow disease affects cattle, and a variant called scrapie affects sheep and goats.

No cases of humans contracting chronic wasting disease have been reported.

There is no known test to determine the presence of chronic wasting disease in live cervids. Tests are conducted on a large portion of the brain stem and nearby lymph nodes to determine the disease's presence.

Arkansas is the 24th state to report a confirmed case of chronic wasting disease. The disease has also been reported in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Pruitt elk is the first chronic wasting disease case to be detected in a free-ranging elk in the southeast, Gray said.

According to a 2011 report by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, about 318,000 Arkansans hunt big game -- deer, bear, elk and wild turkeys. About 308,000 hunt deer exclusively. In 2010, big game hunters generated $411 million in retail sales in Arkansas.

Since 1998, when the commission enacted a regulation that a buck must have at least three points on one antler to be legal to kill, Arkansas has become a destination for trophy deer hunters because of its large number of mature bucks.

Gray said it is too early to predict the impact of chronic wasting disease on the state's deer herd. He said the commission needs first to determine the extent of chronic wasting disease in the state.

"Once we determine the extent of the problem, solutions might include increasing the doe bag limit to reduce the population and lift antler point restrictions to keep the buck segment of the population young," Gray said.

Among the states where the disease has been detected, Wisconsin has taken the most extreme measures to control it. In 2002, Wisconsin attempted to eradicate a large percentage of its deer herd.

"They have some counties where bucks have 40 percent chronic wasting disease prevalence rates," Gray said. "Eradication is terminology we don't want to use. We don't want to go to large-scale, multicounty eradication."

While chronic wasting disease in deer could have statewide ramifications, the state's elk herd is limited to a small area in north-central Arkansas.

From 1981-85, Arkansas reintroduced 112 elk to the state. Wesley Wright, the commission's elk project coordinator, said there are 600-700 elk in the Buffalo River area. The commission has tested elk for chronic wasting disease since 1998 and has tested more than 7,000 deer since 2003.

Kentucky reintroduced elk from 1997-2002, and its herd consists of 9,000-10,000 animals. Tennessee reintroduced elk from 2000-03. Its herd contains about 450 elk.

"A lot of states are watching us," Gray said. "Kentucky and Tennessee are alerted. A lot of states have eastern elk, but this is the first case of chronic wasting disease in eastern elk."

The commission plans to deviate from its original sampling protocol for elk. Gray said the initial strategy was to eliminate all elk within a 5-mile radius of Pruitt to control the disease's spread.

With the discovery of the infected deer, Gray said it is no longer necessary to kill an entire localized population of elk. Instead, the commission will kill any free-ranging elk that appear to be sick.

"When we had that first positive elk, we hoped that was an isolated incident," Gray said. "We were hoping to take 35 to 40 animals and remove that little segment of that herd."

Eastern elk are susceptible to brain worms, which they ingest while foraging, Gray said. Meningeal worms cause symptoms that are similar to those of chronic wasting disease, and Game and Fish biologists formerly assumed that sick elk in the Buffalo River corridor were suffering from meningeal worm infestations.

"Animals that we thought had meningeal worms are now elevated in concern," Gray said.

Hunters killed 47 elk in 2015 and 52 in 2014.

The commission will hold two public meetings this week in Ponca and Huntsville to talk about its chronic wasting disease sampling strategies. The Ponca meeting will be at 6 p.m. today at the Ponca fire station.

The Huntsville meeting will be at 6 p.m. Friday in the Carroll Electric Building at 5056 U.S.-412B.

State Desk on 03/10/2016

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