Next month, technicians at the state’s Department of Agriculture lab outside Columbus will analyze tissue slices from the brains of 500 white-tailed deer killed by Ohio hunters in early December.
Using high-powered microscopes and special stains, they’ll try to locate tiny, spongelike holes in the tissue — indications that an animal was infected with chronic wasting disease.
And if they find these holes, which are created by abnormal proteins called prions, another Ohio hunt will be scheduled. Its goal will be to eradicate tens of thousands of deer in an attempt to stop a mad-cowlike disorder that is deadly to deer and elk and has infected animals in 11 other states and two Canadian provinces.
“We don’t believe that CWD (chronic wasting disease) will be found in Ohio,” said Mike Reynolds, of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “We don’t believe it’s in the state. But we certainly can’t say with 100 percent certainty.”
Last fall, no one was talking about the possibility of chronic wasting disease being in Ohio. No one thought the disease, which originated in Colorado, would move east of the Mississippi River — at least so soon.
But this year, it turned up in Wisconsin’s wild deer herd, prompting officials there to begin an effort to kill 25,000 animals in the southwestern part of that state. And this month, the threat moved even closer to Ohio, when a deer with chronic wasting disease was killed in northern Illinois.
The disease, which attacks deer and elk, is one of a family of fatal neurological disorders known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Best known of these disorders are mad cow disease, which has spread to millions of cows in Europe and Asia, and variant Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease, which kills people who consume beef from cattle infected with mad cow.
It’s not clear whether chronic wasting disease poses the same threat to people that mad cow does.
Medical researchers say there is no documented case of chronic wasting disease infecting a person.
But the World Health Organization says that people should not eat any part of a deer or elk showing evidence of the disease, and should not feed it to other animals.
And anecdotal evidence has surfaced: reports of a few hunters who ate deer or elk and later died of rare neurological disorders. pu,break Hunters aren’t worried
Ohio hunters don’t appear to be worried about the threat posed by chronic wasting disease.
Chuck Pheister, a Wadsworth barber, plans to join about 15 friends deer hunting in the Wayne National Forest in southern Ohio when gun season begins next month.
“You are always concerned about things like that,” he said, “but we know it’s not in Ohio yet . . . and there’s no panic.”
Ohio has a wild herd of 575,000 white-tailed deer. Another 6,000-plus animals live in captivity behind 8-foot-high fences on the state’s 515 deer farms. The greatest concentrations of these farms are in Holmes, Wayne, Stark, Tuscarawas and Geauga counties.
Elk farms are in the state, too, but no state records are kept on them because, unlike deer, elk no longer roam wild in Ohio.
Although proof is sketchy, wildlife experts suspect that deer and elk farming — and the interstate shipment of animals to and from these farms — may be responsible for the spread of chronic wasting disease.
It’s not known how the disease is transmitted from animal to animal. It may be by fecal matter or saliva or through contaminated feed. The carcass of an animal killed by chronic wasting disease may contaminate the soil.
The disease attacks and alters the brain. Symptoms include excessive salivation, trouble swallowing, difficulty judging distance, a lack of coordination and drooping ears. It’s always fatal.
Infected deer, however, might not exhibit symptoms for at least 16 months. The incubation period in elk could be even longer. pu,break Slow spread from West
The symptoms of chronic wasting disease first were noticed in 1967 in captive research deer in Colorado, but the cause of those symptoms was not identified until 1978.
For nearly two decades after that,the disease was restricted to wild and captive herds along the Colorado-Wyoming line.
Then it began to turn up elsewhere: Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. It was confirmed in Wisconsin’s wild deer herd early this year, on a Minnesota elk farm this summer and in Illinois this month.
Wildlife officials are especially concerned about the disease moving east because deer are more concentrated in the Midwest. In the West, the disease hits only a small percentage of deer because the animals are scattered.
Greg Matthews, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said his state has nearly 950 deer and elk farms, with 35,000 animals being raised in captivity. It’s thought that the escape of an infected captive animal could have spread wasting disease to Wisconsin’s wild herd.
Matthews described deer and elk farming as a business that too few people have paid close attention to. Records on deer being shipped from state to state are often inaccurate and incomplete.The regulation of shipments to and from deer and elk farms is “a mess, a bloody mess,” he said. After chronic wasting disease turned up in Wisconsin, a number of states banned interstate shipments of live deer and elk. Montana and Wyoming enacted bans on new elk and deer ranches.
In May, the Ohio Department of Agriculture prohibited shipments to the state of deer and elk from Wisconsin. Included in the ban were any animals that had been part of a Wisconsin herd in the last six years.
But the department later dropped the ban and adopted a rule that any deer or elk shipped to Ohio must come from herds free of chronic wasting disease — something that’s nearly impossible to determine.
A proven blood or tissue test that can be done on live animals hasn’t been developed. So Ohio will accept a statement from a veterinarian assuring that the herd from which animals are being shipped shows no evidence of the disease.
However, because of the disease’s long incubation period — when animals have no symptoms — that assurance can’t be 100 percent, said Dr. David Glauer, chief of the state agriculture department’s Division of Animal Industry and also the state’s veterinarian.
“We have to start somewhere,” Glauer said, ” . . . and the more time that goes by, the better those assurances will be.”
The analysis of the brain tissue from 500 deer killed during this year’s gun hunting season, Dec. 2 to 8, will be the first time that Ohio has tested for chronic wasting disease.
At deer check stations, the brain tissue samples will be taken randomly from animals at least 18 months old that were killed in 26 counties.
Seventeen of those counties — Athens, Belmont, Coshocton, Gallia, Guernsey, Hocking, Jefferson, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Muskingum, Jackson, Noble, Perry, Ross, Tuscarawas and Washington are in southeast Ohio, where the number of deer killed by hunters is largest, said Reynolds of the Department of Natural Resources.
Five other counties — Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Lucas and Williams — are in the northwest part of the state. The testing is being done there because officials also want to check for another disease, bovine tuberculosis, that is in the deer herd of nearby Michigan, Reynolds said.
And animals killed in Wayne, Ashtabula, Geauga and Holmes counties will be tested because of the large number of deer farms in those counties. Reynolds doesn’t think that chronic wasting disease is in Ohio because the state’s 425,000 deer hunters have not reported seeing sick and dying deer.
“With the numbers of hunters we have in Ohio,” he said, “there’s a very good chance that it’s not here — at least not yet.”
Others, however, aren’t so optimistic.
Steve Laughlin, a Carroll County deer farmer, is convinced that the disease occurs naturally and will be found once Ohio starts testing dead deer.
It hasn’t been found yet, he said, because of that long incubation period. Most deer killed by Ohio hunters, he said, are only 18 months old — too young to have contracted the disease, come down with symptoms and been killed by it.
Roy Yoder, a nationally known deer breeder from Holmes County, thinks deer and elk farmers are being unfairly targeted by the upcoming state testing in Wayne, Ashtabula, Geauga and Holmes counties.
If the disease is found in those counties, everyone will assume it got there from captive animals escaping from or contaminating nearby wild herds, said Yoder, president of the 200-member White Tail Deer Farmers of Ohio.
There is no proof that the captive herds are at fault, said Yoder, 56.
Wayne County has 47 deer farms, and Holmes County has 53. They have nearly 20 percent of the state total. Stark, Geauga and Tuscarawas counties have 54 deer farms combined.
The threat of chronic wasting disease is having a major impact on Yoder, who has 150 deer on 34 acres south of Mount Eaton. He typically would buy and sell up to 200 deer a year.
New restrictions on shipping deer into and out of states is “putting a real crimp in our business,” he said. “The borders are closed at the moment . . . and it’s really hurt us.”
Yoder said what’s needed is a proven test that shows whether live animals have the disease.
One experimental live test involves capturing an animal and removing part of its tonsil, he said. But that’s time-consuming and impractical when dealing with hundreds of animals.
By next spring, Ohio officials should be better able to assess the threat of chronic wasting disease, said Glauer, the state veterinarian. In the meantime, a plan is being developed to deal with the disease should it be found here, he said.
That plan, expected to be completed this year, could mirror what’s being done in Wisconsin, where the state is expected to spend at least $12 million fighting the disease.
The confirmation in February of three cases of chronic wasting disease in wild deer killed in late 2001 near Mount Horeb, Wis., marked the first time the disease was found east of the Mississippi River. Since then, an additional 28 cases have turned up in wild deer in the Mount Horeb area, and the disease has been confirmed in a captive herd on a Wisconsin game farm.
Wisconsin officials expect to test 50,000 deer for chronic wasting disease this year. And the state is trying to eradicate 25,000 deer in a 389-square-mile area west of Madison. The eradication effort is expected to continue for three to five years.
The dead deer are being disposed of in special incinerators at a cost of about $120 per carcass.
“To do nothing was never an alternative,” said Matthews of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “This is something we had to do to protect our deer herd.”
Deer hunting is a $1 billion-a-year industry in Wisconsin, annually bringing out 670,000 hunters who bag about 450,000 deer.
By comparison, Ohio hunters killed 165,124 deer last year in a $230 million industry.
Reports have said that as many as one-third of Wisconsin’s hunters may decide not to shoot deer this year because of fear of chronic wasting disease.
That concerns state officials because, if hunters stay home, the herd will grow, resulting in more deadly deer-vehicle accidents, environmental damage and a greater threat of chronic wasting disease spreading in a larger herd.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum has called chronic wasting disease “the most serious animal health crisis in our history.” The disease, he added, “is similar to a lifeboat headed for a life-threatening waterfall on a slow-moving stream.” pu,break Advice for hunters
For now, Ohio officials have simple advice for dealing with chronic wasting disease: Deer that do not appear to be healthy should not be shot, and the meat of a sickly animal should not be consumed.
Hunters seeing sick or emaciated deer are asked to notify the a regional office of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The five offices — in Akron, Athens, Columbus, Findlay and Xenia — can be contacted by calling 1-800-WILDLIFE.
State wildlife personnel have been given specific procedures for collecting sick animals in a way that will provide the best test samples for chronic wasting disease.
Glauer said those hunters whose deer are randomly chosen by the state for brain-tissue testing can freeze or store their meat for several weeks until they get results assuring them that the animals are free of disease.
Deer hunters are keeping a close eye on chronic wasting disease, said Ron Criss, who lives in Stark County’s Lawrence Township and is president of the 1,000-plus-member Goodyear Hunting and Fishing Club.
“Most hunters won’t change what they’ve been doing in the past — at least not yet,” he said. “Yes, it’s a problem, but it’s not here yet.”can be reached at