Chronic Wasting Disease in Maine

If you had asked everyone in the room to vote right then and there, I would bet that supplemental feeding of deer would have been made illegal. The room was packed with people at the Augusta Civic Center, listening to a presentation by Dr. Krysten L. Schuler, Wildlife Disease Ecologist at Cornell Wildlife Health Lab about her research on Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and what is being done in the 26 states currently impacted.

CWD is caused by a mutated protein that are found in prions. Deer shed prions through bodily fluids and once in the soil, CWD can stay there for months if not years.  The worst spreaders of the prions are those big, adult bucks that we all covet. CWD is fatal and in the same family as Mad Cow Disease. The Centers for Disease Control describes Chronic Wasting Disease saying, "It may take over a year before an infected animal develops symptoms, which can include drastic weight loss (wasting), stumbling, and other neurological symptoms." It also recommends that people not consume deer that have tested positive for CWD.

Chronic Wasting Disease Mike Hopper, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism

Dr. Schuler described the potential spread of CWD like this: if a deer eats or drinks from an area that is heavily populated by other deer, the fluids can come into contact with other deer who can also be infected.  Also, if a deer with CWD lies down and dies in a corn field, those prions get absorbed into the soil.  A year goes by and corn grows in that same field and gets cut.  That corn can have CWD in it because it carries the nutrients that are in the soil.  The corn gets bought and transported to other states or other areas of the state and then could be used to feed deer in winter months.  A deer comes along and eats the corn.  Then guess what…

A recent study done by UMaine asked people across Maine about their thoughts on deer and deer feeding.  When asked to rank their thoughts on threats to the deer herd, 73% answered that Chronic Wasting Disease was not really a big threat. How scary!

IF&W currently tests a small sample of deer and moose killed every year. In episode 5 of the Fish & Game Changers podcast, Katie Yates, Public Outreach Specialist for the Department interviews wildlife biologist Sarah Boyden. “During hunting season, we sample specific towns for CWD.  The towns either have a big deer feeding operation or they have a deer farm and both of those things increase the risk of Chronic Wasting Disease” said Sarah Boyden.  When asked about deer who are infected, Boyden explained that deer “don’t get symptomatic until the end of the disease and that’s when we start to see them not acting right.  They are thin, not eating, they don’t seem alarmed by anything but they can carry it for two years, spreading it around so we are upping our sampling now to pick up any adult roadkill.”  Since 1999, more than 9,000 deer have been tested, which equates to about 450 per year.  Maine harvests between 20-30k deer a year.

IF&W deer biologist Nate Bieber said that the CWD response plan that the Department is working on will go into effect when a deer tests positive in Maine.  This means that when there is a deer that is reported as being sick, killed and then tested, something will happen.  A deer carrying CWD could be hit by a car or shot by a hunter and no one will immediately think that it should get tested.  And that is the scary part.  We won’t necessarily know how many deer have gotten sick if one of the deer that regularly goes to one of those supplemental feeding stations is the one that tests positive.  One deer eating out of those corn/grain bins could cause every deer who eats there to get sick.  Maine’s deer herd is already hurting due to predation and our harsh winters. Well-meaning people think that they are helping deer when they provide supplemental food sources during the winter months but they are actually doing the opposite. One of these feeding operations could be the cause of CWD coming in and spreading throughout not only the deer herd, but also the moose herd.

Maine currently has no formal regulations when it comes to supplemental feeding but it does suggest that people not do it.  At Dr. Schuler’s presentation, someone in the audience asked Nate Bieber about Maine’s plans to push for more restrictions on feeding. His response was disappointing; “the state plans to continue to maintain the current practices and monitor deer that are killed” he said.

Luckily, there are researchers like Dr. Schuler and organizations like the National Deer Alliance and Quality Deer Management Association that ARE closely monitoring the spread of CWD and have suggestions on what every hunter can do to help stop the spread of this and keep our deer herd healthy.