In eastern Idaho, the battle line is the Wyoming border.
The deadly chronic wasting disease — sometimes called “zombie deer disease” — is killing deer, elk and moose in Wyoming, Utah and Montana. It can crush deer and elk populations. It has been detected just a few miles from the Idaho state line. So far, the disease has not been detected in Idaho.
With the main deer hunting season set to open Oct. 10, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game wants help from hunters in combating the spread of the always-deadly neurological disease.
Fish and Game is asking hunters to do two things. First, don’t bring certain parts of deer, elk or moose into Idaho from other states known to have the disease. And, second, stop at check stations or bring your in-state harvest in to be tested.
Because the disease causes brain damage from abnormal forms of the prion protein, hunters are asked not to bring brain or spinal tissue from animals harvested from other states.
Infected animal symptoms include “excessive salivation, drooping head or ears, tremors or shaking and extremely low body weight. The animals may also show no fear of humans or lack coordination,” according to the Fish and Game. Chronic wasting disease is similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. There is no known cure. There has never been a human case of the disease.
A third effort also is underway to check all road-killed ungulates and animals that might appear to be sick.
“One of the things about (chronic wasting disease) is that it causes some level of stupor in animals, and animals have a higher propensity to get hit by cars if they have (the disease),” said Toby Boudreau, chief of wildlife for Fish and Game. “Some states in the Midwest and Southwest have had as much as five years difference from when they detected it in a roadkill and in the first positive hunter sample.”
Boudreau said that in some places in Idaho nearly as many or more deer are killed by cars and trucks than with rifles. Testing roadkill has become part of the department’s strategy to detect the disease. Boudreau encourages people who salvage roadkill to bring the animal’s head in to Fish and Game for testing.
“We train regional staff to pick up roadkill and get a sample,” he said. “We are taking reports and investigating every report of a suspect animal or an animal that’s acting weird and sampling those animals to see if that might be a positive.”
Another recent hunting rule in the fight against chronic wasting disease is a ban on the use of natural urine from deer, elk, moose or caribou. Ungulate urine is sometimes used as a lure by hunters. Disease-carrying prions can be transmitted through animal urine.
Boudreau said Fish and Game has been surveying for chronic wasting disease for 22 hunting seasons — since 1997 — and continues to update its strategy as more knowledge of the disease comes available.
“We’ve adapted what we do and how we sample to match the science that’s being done right now,” he said. “One of the things that we’ve done is change our sampling strategy, so now our sampling strategy has a 95 percent chance of detecting a 1 percent prevalence. The prevalence is the percentage of animals in a population that are CWD positive.”
Morgan Pfander, regional wildlife population biologist, said Fish and Game collects samples from an animal’s lymph nodes behind the throat at the base of the skull.
“It’s a pretty scientifically based monitoring effort to be able to detect it in areas where it is most likely to cross the border,” Pfander said. “I think we’re just doing everything we can to keep an eye on it. We’re doing everything we can to keep it out of our state. Hunters being really responsible about where they transport game is a big part of that.”
With the recent detection of chronic wasting disease in deer near Libby, Mont. — 25 miles from the Idaho Panhandle — and the disease found in deer in Wyoming’s Star Valley — less than 2 miles from the Idaho border — Boudreau said he thinks it’s only a matter of time before “zombie deer” show up in Idaho.
“It would be great to say that we won’t ever detect it, but that wouldn’t be something that I believe,” he said. “It’s not something I’m looking forward to detecting, but I can say with great confidence that our agency is as ready as you could possibly be. We’re not being so naive — we are actually working on post detection information also.”
For information on what hunters can do to prevent transporting the disease into Idaho, go to tinyurl.com/ID-CWD-info.