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McCoy: WV’s chronic wasting disease problem expands with each passing year

JOHN McCOY | Gazette-Mail file photo
Since chronic wasting disease was found in a single Hampshire County deer in 2005, the disease has spread steadily into Hardy County.

As West Virginia enters its second decade of dealing with chronic wasting disease (CWD), three things are apparent:

One, the problem is here for good; two, the disease is spreading; and three, lots of other states are in the same boat.

CWD first showed up in the Mountain State in 2005. A Division of Natural Resources biologist took a routine tissue sample from a road-killed buck and sent it off for analysis. The test came back positive. West Virginia had its first case of CWD.

Today the disease has spread from the Hampshire County town of Slanesville, where the buck was found, into parts of Hardy County. Because diseased animals have been killed close to those counties’ borders with nearby counties, and because CWD has been found in neighboring counties in Maryland and Virginia, DNR officials have extended the state’s official “CWD Containment Area” to include Morgan, Berkeley, Jefferson, Grant and Mineral counties.

In the 39-square-mile area of Hampshire County where DNR officials most closely study the disease, CWD can be found in approximately one in every four whitetails. It is less prevalent elsewhere.

Since there is no live test for the disease, biologists have tracked its prevalence and spread by taking tissue samples from deer killed by DNR-employed sharpshooters and by hunters. Between 2005 and 2012, the last year of the sharpshooter program, marksmen killed roughly 1,000 whitetails for sampling. From 2005 to 2015, researchers took samples from 10,241 hunter-killed animals.

To try to curb the disease’s spread, DNR officials have imposed restrictions on baiting deer and transporting their carcasses. In all of the “containment area” counties, hunters aren’t allowed to bait or feed deer. In Hampshire, Hardy and Morgan counties, they aren’t allowed to transport whole field-dressed carcasses outside those counties’ borders.

“I would say we have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this disease,” said Paul Johansen, the DNR’s wildlife chief. “We’ve taken every reasonable, science-based recommendation under advisement for developing control measures to slow the spread as much as we can.”

Jim Crum, the DNR’s deer project leader, said the agency’s efforts aren’t focused only on the counties where CWD has been found.

“We’re looking at the rest of the state, too,” he said. “We’re continuing to [take tissue samples] from road-killed animals and animals that have been reported as sick.”

So far, no CWD-positive whitetails have been discovered outside the borders of Hampshire and Hardy counties.

How did the disease end up in West Virginia? No one seems to know, but there are two prime suspects: Either someone improperly disposed of a diseased deer or elk carcass from a CWD-positive state, or the disease arrived on captive deer transported here from outside the state.

If there’s any solace to be found in West Virginia’s situation, it’s that other states have it every bit as bad or even worse. The latest newsletter of the Georgia-based Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study group outlines the grim statistics.

For example: In 2002, CWD had been detected in wild deer or elk in only five states, and in just 20 captive herds in six states. Now the disease’s footprint has spread to free-ranging deer or elk in 22 states and in 75 captive deer or elk herds scattered among 16 states. That’s a fourfold increase among wild herds and a threefold increase among captive herds.

In the decade years since CWD was discovered in West Virginia, 12 other states have been added to the ranks of those with CWD in free-ranging deer or elk populations. When or where will the spread end?

Your guess is as good as mine.

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