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Chronic wasting disease testing takes back seat this deer season as Missouri wrestles with COVID-19

Chronic wasting disease testing takes back seat this deer season as Missouri wrestles with COVID-19


ST. LOUIS — An effort by state conservationists to slow the spread of COVID-19 among humans may, in the short term, limit understanding of where the hot spots are for chronic wasting disease, or CWD, a fatal neurological disease spreading in the deer population.

In recent years, hunters in affected areas were required to have their deer carcasses sampled for the disease at various check-in stations during opening weekend of rifle season, which brings the largest harvest. The samples help the state find and track the disease.

This year, to keep people from congregating, the Missouri Department of Conservation called off mandatory CWD testing on opening weekend, which is on Nov. 14 and 15.

The conservation department said hunters can still voluntarily have their deer checked by the state for free. Archery season, which is underway, already turned up a new area for the disease. The first portion of youth rifle season is Saturday and Sunday.

“What hunters do not provide for us we have to get in the post-season operations,” Dan Zarlenga, a spokesman for the department, said about collecting samples to screen for the condition after all deer seasons are over Jan. 15.

Chronic wasting disease is highly contagious and often invisible. Infected deer may not show symptoms for 18 months. Although it has not been proved to be transmissible to humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions against human consumption of infected meat.

CWD has changed the hunt in some states, including Missouri, where deer season is like a holiday. There were 285,400 deer harvested in 2019.

Missouri first started testing for the disease in 2001, following detection in Colorado, Wyoming and other areas. The first case was found in 2010 at a hunting preserve in Linn County. By 2012, it was detected in the wild, in Macon County. The tally has since grown to 163 positive cases detected in 17 counties.

Pulaski County, in south-central Missouri, was just added to the list. Before that, Taney, Stone and Oregon counties, along the Arkansas border, were added.

“We definitely are still concerned that the disease is still being introduced to different parts of the state,” said Jasmine Batten, wildlife health program supervisor for the conservation department.

While the disease spreads easily, she said, the prevalence is still low.

“Even though we have a bunch of areas where we are finding it, it is still a low percentage of deer contracting it,” Batten said. “Most of the deer in the state are uninfected at this time.”

In 2017, the conservation department confirmed 33 new cases from a pool of 24,500 tested carcasses. In 2019, there were 46 positives out of 32,000 samples.

This year, she said, the state is going to lose important data but other steps are being taken to help control CWD.

The state plans to do targeted culling in areas where it finds concentrations of the disease. The state said it will do a better job of cracking down on illegal “deer baiting” sites that bring deer close together and potentially spread infection. The state has deployed drop-off locations for deer heads to be tested in six counties in the St. Louis region alone.

There are also new restrictions involving the handling of deer carcasses in affected areas. If the carcasses aren’t going to be taken to a processing facility or taxidermist, they must be quartered in the field, with head and spine left behind.

“We have grown increasingly concerned that humans are helping spread the disease,” said Batten, about moving carcasses across the state.

CWD cases by Missouri county

This table shows the total number of chronic wasting disease (CWD) cases found in Missouri free-ranging deer by county through June 30, 2020. Positives for the current surveillance season are not included. Source: Missouri Department of Conservation

County Total positive cases Year first detected
Adair 19 2014-15
Cedar 1 2017-18
Cole 1 2014-15
Crawford 1 2018-19
Franklin 19 2015-16
Jefferson 4 2016-17
Linn 19 2015-16
Macon 42 2011-12
Mercer 1 2018-19
Oregon 7 2018-19
Perry 3 2017-18
Polk 7 2017-18
St. Clair 8 2016-17
Ste. Genevieve 23 2017-18
Stone 3 2018-19
Taney 4 2018-19

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This table shows the total number of chronic wasting disease (CWD) cases found in Missouri free-ranging deer by county through June 30, 2020. …

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