For the last several years, Arkansas wildlife officials have been on alert for chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the state’s whitetail and elk herds. First found in late 2015, the fatal infectious neurodegenerative disease is caused by misfolded proteins called prions.
In response to the threat, and in an effort to keep the problem isolated to northwest Arkansas (so far, all positive cases have come from the region) as much as possible, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has been implementing a set of regulations and a testing program.
With whitetail season having recently wrapped up, biologist Cory Gray spoke with Delta Farm Press about what’s happened since he was first interviewed last April. Among his comments:
On the testing program…
“Our ‘Phase Four’ efforts were focused on deer season collections, hunter-harvested samples. That began the first of September when our archery season began. To date, we’re close to 5,800 samples collected since then.
“From those samples, we found CWD in three more counties. We found positives in Washington County, Benton County – west of the CWD zone up against Oklahoma – and one in sample in Sebastian County north of the Fort Chaffee area.
“This shows our strategy and surveillance efforts are working because we spent a lot of effort on planning to look at counties around the CWD-positive area. We know it’s in Boone County, Newton County and Madison County and Carroll County so we wanted to focus on counties adjacent to those, to give us an idea of where the outside edge of the disease is, find the embers that pop out of the fire. We’ll continue to look and watch the results that come back from the lab. The search isn’t yet over for 2017.”
What about the sample size? About 15 months ago, you’d collected 5,000 samples. This year, you’ve collected 5,800 samples since bow season started?
“We really ramped up our data collection and a multi-prong approach. One way we did that was to operate check stations. The opening weekend of modern gun season, Game and Fish had 17 check stations inside the CWD zone. We did that to not only provide samples of us but to provide an avenue for interested hunters to have their animals tested.
“We’ve also been working with taxidermists throughout the state, a statewide effort. We’re actually paying them $10 for every sample they collect. That’s another avenue for hunters to get a free test run. Hunters can go to our website and check for taxidermists working in the program.
“This year, we’re also working with some deer processors both in the CWD zone and the ‘yellow counties’ adjacent to the zone. Those processors pull heads for us. When a deer comes in, they give the hunter a card notifying their animal will be tested for CWD, they cut the head off, tag it, and lay it to the side. Then, our folks will come in and collect the heads. We worked with those processors the entirety of the modern gun season. A large number of samples came from them.”
What about the elk found with CWD last year? Last time we spoke you were still checking its origin.
“We did do some DNA work on the elk.
“We have several research projects going, right now. Yesterday, we were meeting about some more.
“One of the things we were looking for with the elk – especially since it was our first (CWD) positive – was if it was a wild elk and belonged to us or did it escape from a captive facility somewhere.
“We have DNA from the elk and also from scat samples. We pull scat samples throughout our elk range. So, we sent samples off and the results showed the (CWD-afflicted) elk was a wild, Arkansas elk.
“Now, we’re working with our whitetail herd and looking at genetic distribution within the CWD zone, we’re looking at gene flow and any kind of genetic resistance – they call that the PRNP gene. So, we’re examining about 300 samples from within the zone, looking at genetic movement, diversity and resistance to the disease.”
On the receptivity of the hunting community to the commission’s plan…
“Our plan has two main goals. One is to minimize disease spread and we have regulations pertaining to that. We have carcass movement laws – we don’t want the disease taken out of the focal area.
“Second, we want to flat-line prevalence. We don’t want the disease to increase and that’s where regulations on baiting and feeding come in. We understand when animals congregate it tends to amplify this disease. If you have a positive animal that comes into a location day after day and it’s urinating and defecating and salivating that deposits these prions in the same spot.
“We’re gathering data right now. With the new positive counties, we’re taking a step back and doing a complete evaluation of our regulations. We want to make sure our goals are the same.
“Hunters are crucial for disease management. We have to have their support and we’ve tried our best to facilitate that through meetings, through public information getting out. We did a survey last spring. We’ll continue that and it’ll never go away.”
Last year, there were questions on whether CWD could, or had, made the leap into the feral hog population. Any news on that front?
“That’s a great question and there was work done in a laboratory setting where they were able to get CWD prions to go into pen-raised hogs. We’ve been in contact with the USDA and we’ve been told they’re starting a project in February where they’ll be collecting samples. We’ll work with them along the Buffalo River and pull samples and see if we can find the CWD prions in wild hogs.
“If we find those prions it’ll spawn many more questions. Are they a transmitter of the disease? Are they just a carrier? Are there concerns in consuming these animals? Can they get this disease in a wild setting? You know, what they do in the lab isn’t necessarily replicated in the wild.”
Any advice for anyone who comes across a sick animal?
“We’re asking hunters to be cautious and aware of any sick or animal that’s acting unusual. We route all those calls through our Game and Fish radio room, which is staffed 24/7. If a hunter comes across a sick animal, give us a call (1-800-482-9262) and that info will then be directed to a local biologist. Then, we can make a determination of whether that animal needs to be sampled.”
A few weeks back, a biologist in Montana was commenting on the CWD problem farther north. Nothing they’ve tried has worked and he said the best thing to do was to encourage predators to take out the sick animals. Would that work in Arkansas?
“I’m unfamiliar with that approach but there would seem to be a lot of issues with that. One would be the close proximity of predators and people in the state. Secondly, I wonder if predators can eat enough of these animals.”
The form of CWD in whitetails and elk still hasn’t been found in cattle, right?
“That’s right. Again, they were able to get that done in a lab setting where it was directly injected in the brain. But there has been no evidence it’s gone into cattle in a normal outdoor situation. There are no concerns about that, right now.”