As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is calling for residents’ help in preventing the spread of another infectious disease — this one among deer.
On Thursday, DNR officials held a virtual meeting to discuss the status of chronic wasting disease in Iowa. Deer Program Leader Tyler Harms and state wildlife veterinarian Dr. Rachel Ruden provided information about CWD and answered questions from viewers.
CWD primarily affects deer and elk and is caused by misfolded proteins, or prions, which are transmitted between deer via direct contact or bodily fluids. Infected deer also can shed these prions, which may persist in the environment for years. The neurological ailment results in emaciation, abnormal behavior and loss of body functions.
Ruden stressed that although some deer might be more resistant to the progressive disease, it is always eventually fatal.
“The term ‘resistance’ is a little misleading,” she said. “It means that the deer can survive longer with the disease, but it still means that they will ultimately succumb to the disease, and it means that they’re on the landscape longer to spread the infected prion.”
While it is not currently believed that humans can contract CWD, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest not consuming meat from affected animals.
Since 2002, the Iowa DNR has tested nearly 85,000 tissue samples from wild deer for CWD. There have been 91 positive tests in eight counties — Dubuque, Clayton, Allamakee, Winneshiek, Fayette, Wayne, Decatur and Woodbury counties.
Only one positive case of CWD has been detected in Dubuque County, recorded in a deer killed by a vehicle in 2018. However, as in all areas in which CWD has been found, a disease management zone has been established around the area.
Within these zones, the DNR conducts heightened testing and allows additional hunting opportunities, such as increased antlerless harvests or late hunting seasons, to limit the infected population.
Harms emphasized that increased hunting is not intended to eradicate local deer populations but rather to keep infected areas “on the low end of our population goal.”
“One of the common concerns is that we’re going to try to kill every deer in these areas,” he said. “That’s certainly not our goal.”
Local Wildlife Depredation Biologist Ross Ellingson wrote in an email that the DNR tested 466 deer in Dubuque County in 2019. They have tested about 125 samples so far in 2020 and expect to reach 350 to 400 by the year’s end.
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, Ellingson said DNR officials will exercise caution as they begin collecting field samples this weekend.
“We will practice social distancing and wear face masks when necessary as we work with groups of hunters to obtain samples,” he wrote. “The cooperation we have had from hunters over the past 15+ years in Dubuque and surrounding counties has been tremendous, and we will continue to work together to gather the information we need while being as safe as possible during the pandemic.”
During the event, Harms and Ruden listed several ways that Iowans can help limit the spread of CWD. These include testing harvested deer, reporting sick animals and avoiding using salt licks or other baiting techniques that cause deer to congregate.
“Anything that one deer brings to that bait pile, they can now share with orders of magnitude higher than they would normally contact in their general ecology,” Ruden said.