State officials have launched their first-ever testing program to determine whether Indiana’s deer herd is infected with chronic wasting disease, a “mad cow”-related illness spreading through the Midwest.
Officials from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources said at least 1,100 deer killed by hunters around the state this fall will be tested, with about 2,000 others preserved for future testing, if necessary.
The widespread testing — estimated to cost up to $300,000 — is likely to show whether the fatal, incurable disease has spread to Indiana, officials said.
Chronic wasting disease, also known as CWD, is related to “mad cow” disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which affects humans. The nervous system diseases are noted for brain lesions.
Officials say there have been no confirmed cases of CWD being spread to humans, and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not consider it a public health risk, according to a spokeswoman.
Steve Sierp, a hunter and hunting-education instructor, said he won’t change any of his habits because of concerns about the disease, and he hasn’t heard much from other hunters about it, either.
Sierp, who lives near North Vernon, said he hasn’t seen any sickly deer recently.
“I’ve seen a lot of very healthy-looking deer,” he said. “If I see a bone-thin deer, I’m not going to harvest it.”
The disease has been spreading through captive and wild populations since it was discovered in Colorado 35 years ago. It was found earlier this year in wild deer in southeastern Wisconsin and has been detected in Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Little is known about how the disease spreads. But many researchers believe it has moved more quickly around the country because deer- and elk-farming operations have inadvertently transported the illness across state lines. Indiana has a one-year ban on importing such animals.
Although researchers are working on a live test for CWD in deer, animals currently must be killed and their brains checked to determine whether they are afflicted.
Wisconsin officials have undertaken a massive deer kill and testing program, hoping to check 50,000 deer for the disease. In some areas, hunters are being asked to kill every deer they can.
“If you talk to anyone in Wisconsin, you would find that the public is very aware and very concerned that this has spread in the wild,” said John Goss, director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Since the tests involve examining deer brains, officials ask Indiana hunters to allow removal of the head from their game when they take it to a check station. The test is voluntary, but DNR officials say they have had no problems with hunters turning them down.
More than 150 samples have been collected thus far in the early part of the hunting season, which lasts in various forms until Jan. 5. Hunters may keep the antlers and skull caps and will be notified if their deer tests positive.
The testing will be funded in part by about $110,000 in revenue from hunting licenses. The rest of the money — up to almost $200,000 — will come from other state and federal sources.
If CWD is found in Indiana, more samples will be tested to define how far it has spread.
One potential impact could be a drop in the number of deer hunters due to concerns over the disease. In Wisconsin, purchases of deer hunting licenses have dropped more than 20 percent.
About 100,000 deer are killed each year by Hoosier hunters, with officials relying on them to manage the deer population. Fewer hunters could mean the herd size would grow rapidly, resulting in crop damage or a rise in car-deer accidents.