Cases of chronic wasting disease have been slowly increasing among deer in Michigan. Before hunting season this fall, there were nine cases of the disease. Now that number has risen to 30 suspected cases.
The disease is neurological and found in deer, elk and moose.
"It is an always fatal disease that deer can contract," says Chad Stewart, deer management specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "Once it’s in the deer herd, it stays in the deer herd."
Increased salivation and emaciation are symptoms of the disease.
As far as health officials can tell, humans cannot get the disease. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people should not eat infected game.
According to officials in Texas, chronic wasting disease – or CWD – has been detected in 23 states, including Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and Minnesota. Stewart says in states where CWD has spread a lot, they’ve seen sharp declines in the population.
"And it is essentially irreversible," he says. "So we do not want CWD to spread across our state."
Until this year, deer with CWD were found only in Clinton and Ingham counties. But now, suspected cases of the disease have tripled, with 17 in Montcalm County, three in Kent County and one in Clinton County.
"Basically what I think we’re finding, especially in Montcalm County, is that CWD has likely been there for several years."
The DNR expects CWD to spread to other counties. Stewart says right now rates are still relatively low in the state, between one to three percent of the herd in Montcalm. But the situation will be much more dire if rates continue to rise.
"Once you get to about 40, 45 maybe 50 percent infection in your local deer herd," says Stewart, "then you can start to see biological impacts in your deer herd, and at that point it is completely unrecoverable. You cannot reverse course, and we certainly don’t want to get to that level.”
If that happened in Michigan, fewer deer could mean fewer hunters and could cost the Michigan economy billions of dollars, according to Stewart. It could also cost the DNR conservation money if hunters bought fewer deer licenses.
Stewart says the DNR will fight the spread of chronic wasting disease with management. Over the years, they’ve upped surveillance, used sharpshooters to kill off groups of deer in infected areas and banned deer feeding and baiting. Stewart says after this huge spike in suspected cases, the DNR will work on a new management plan. He says they’ll probably release that plan sometime this spring.