‘Zombie’ deer disease will be ‘virtually impossible’ to get rid of if not kept in check, experts warn

DETROIT – Michigan is raising the stakes in its battle to fight chronic wasting disease in deer, a neurological condition that makes deer appear as “zombies.”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is teaming up with Michigan State University to dole out $4.7 million in grants to support efforts targeting the disease. 

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is related to mad cow disease. Infected deer often look emaciated and confused, wandering aimlessly and unafraid of humans.

Chief of the DNR Wildlife Division, Dr. Russ Mason, told the Free Press portions of the $4.7 million will be allocated to support four specific categories:

  • $2.5 million for basic research, like coming up with more efficient and economical sample testing strategies.
  • $1.5 million for practical & applied research, like understanding the movement of populations to design management strategies.
  • About $500,000 to support multi-jurisdictional collaboration. Any group can apply and qualify for grant money, as long it includes an investigator who is located in Michigan.
  • About $700,000 for public outreach and communication to get the message across that the diseases is “an existential threat to deer, and to conservation in general,” Mason said.

Proposals will be accepted until 5 p.m. on June 3.

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Deer feeding along a Michigan roadside in this April 2011 file photo. (Photo: Eric Sharp, Detroit Free Press)

Don’t eat the meat

Although Mason said there is no demonstrated relationship between the consumption of contaminated venison and human disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization advise against consuming meat from animals that test positive for CWD.

“You should dispose of the deer, not consume the meat, and not feed it to pets,” Mason said. 

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He added that there are experts who believe that CWD has the potential to cross the species barrier and infect humans, so the DNR also recommends against consuming meat from infected animals.

It’s a big issue in Michigan, home to roughly 600,000 deer hunters.

Mason said the goal is to keep the disease in check, with less than 1% of the deer population infected. When the infection rate breaches 1%, he said, it’s virtually impossible to get rid of it.

“You could literally eradicate all the deer in the area, repopulate with deer, and those deer would get sick,” he said. 

Chronic wasting disease is deadly to deer and other cervids. Disease management areas were established to contain the disease and prevent spreading.
Sean Heisey, York Daily Record

Impact on Michigan

According to DNR data, a total of 30,751 free-ranging, white-tailed deer last year were tested for CWD and 62 were positive — with Montcalm County showing the largest numbers. 

“Right now, the major focus of infection seems to be in (the) west, central Lower Peninsula. So Montcalm County into Kent County, up a little bit into Mecosta,” he said. 

“But, in addition, we had one animal positive in the U.P., that obviously … crossed from Wisconsin, and Wisconsin has, at this point, likely an unfixable problem with this disease. Where some counties the prevalence is close to or exceeding 50%, which will crash their population most likely.”

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According to the CDC, as of March 2019, there were 270 counties 24 states reporting cases of CWD. 

However, in Michigan, Mason said infections numbers are “hovering very close” to 1% in places like Montcalm County and northeast Kent County, with one township above 1%. 

“The whole control effort strategy… is to keep the disease below 1%, and if it crosses the 1% threshold, to recognize that under those conditions the disease is likely present, for all intents and purposes, forever. But to maintain it to as close to 1% or below that, as we possibly can.”

Better testing

Mason said he hopes the grant initiative will help lead to better and more accurate tests for the disease.

Currently, the testing process could take 7-14 day, depending on the season, and can run about $125 per deer. 

“In the last three years, we spent about $15 million on testing. So, as we try to address all of the needs, it becomes very expensive for us,” Mason said. “We have to do better than that.”

He added that come next year, the DNR is expecting state testing numbers to rise to as many as 45,000. 

Additionally, Mason hopes a better understanding of how the disease moves on different landscapes and different parts of the state will arise. Nothing that deer move differently in the Lower Peninsula than they do in the Upper Peninsula, where the animals are more migratory due to colder conditions. 

By learning more about how the disease moves, Mason said they will have a better idea of where they need to be to combat it. 

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Follow Aleanna Siacon on Twitter: @AleannaSiacon.

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