WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. – Chronic Wasting Disease has been found in three more mule deer from White Sands Missile Range, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish announced Tuesday, Feb. 4.
Presence of the disease, which is always fatal to deer or elk, was confirmed by Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., said Kerry Mower, a wildlife disease specialist for the Department.
One positive animal was tested in December via a new tonsil biopsy technique that allows healthy deer to remain alive. After the positive result on the tonsil tissue, the animal, which was given a radio collar, was killed. Two positive animals were tested through routine collection during the fall. Examination of their brain stems discovered they were infected with CWD.
The first case of CWD in New Mexico was detected in a White Sands mule deer tested in June, 2002. The most recent Missile Range deer are the only positive animals found in 557 animals tested statewide since the fall hunting seasons began in September, Mower said. An additional 59 samples remain to be examined and Mower expects the state to collect as many as 100 more by the end of June, 2003.
“With an incubation period between 18 months and five years, the prevalence rate we are detecting at White Sands suggests CWD has been present there for a number of years,” Mower said.
Out of 15 White Sands deer tested, four were positive. Samples from seven deer killed during a January hunt in the Organ Mountains, adjacent to the Missile Range, are among the 59 samples that will be tested at CSU in the near future.
Chronic Wasting Disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a family of diseases that includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, often referred to as mad cow disease. Sheep experience a similar disease called scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is one name for this type of disease when it occurs in humans. Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies are believed to be caused by prions (proteinaceous infectious particles) rather than bacterias or viruses. The prions cause gaps in brain tissue but samples must be preserved within 48 hours of an animal’s death for the disease to be detected.
Chronic weight loss is a classic symptom of Chronic Wasting Disease. Animals also might stumble, appear lethargic, salivate excessively or drink water excessively.
Mower said the State of New Mexico is uncertain how CWD may have been transferred to White Sands. It has been studied for three decades in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, where it first was recognized. Since then it has been detected in either wild or captive-bred herds of deer or elk in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. It also has been found in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Mower said the State of New Mexico will continue to test deer on and near White Sands Missile Range in the future to help determine the extent of the CWD contamination. Mower is in Laramie, Wyo., this week at a meeting of states developing strategies for containing CWD.
There is no evidence that CWD can be contracted by humans, however, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has encouraged hunters handling dead deer to use some precautions. No nervous-system tissues – brains, spinal cords, lymph nodes, eyes – should be eaten. Hunters should use latex gloves while dressing animals.
Any deer killed in Big Game Management Unit 19, which includes White Sands Missile Range and the Organ Mountains, must be deboned before being removed from the mountains. Only skullcaps clean of any flesh were allowed off the mountains during the January hunt.
“We will continue to monitor this problem to the best of our ability and take every action we possibly can to protect the health of New Mexico citizens and wildlife,” said Larry Bell, director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. “Although we appear to have a problem in the White Sands area, overall our testing indicates this disease is not widespread in the state.”
To prevent further contamination, Bell has declared an animal health emergency within New Mexico and is not allowing the importation of any cervids – deer or elk – at this time.
According to Brig. Gen. William Engel, commander of White Sands, the missile range will work closely with the state to define the problem and has offered its full support.