Wildlife officials are expanding their surveillance for chronic wasting disease in Oklahoma’s white- tailed deer herd as the brain-destroying illness continues to spread in other states.
So far the incurable disease has not been found in Oklahoma’s wild deer. It was discovered in an Oklahoma County captive elk herd destroyed in September. The diseased elk had been brought to Oklahoma from Montana.
About 400 white- tailed deer in Oklahoma have been tested in the past three years. This year, state officials hope to collect samples from 500 deer harvested during the nine-day hunting season which began Saturday.
“We think it’s responsible to try and step up the sampling and do some in localized regions of the state where we haven’t sampled previously,” said Nels Rodefeld, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Mike Shaw, wildlife research supervisor for the department, said the U. S. Department of Agriculture asked for 500 samples from Oklahoma this year based on the state’s harvest numbers. Samples will be collected from 16 deer check stations, seven more than last year.
Those stations are in Tahlequah, Madill, Langley, Ada, Antlers, Nowata, McAlester, Guthrie, Woodward, Fort Cobb, Stillwater, Stigler, Enid, Jay, Pawhuska and Perry.
“All of these are big stations,” Shaw said. “We want to be able to look at lots of deer.”
As in the past, the testing is voluntary. Shaw said hunters have been cooperative in the past when asked to provide a sample, which involves taking the deer’s head and removing a portion of the brain.
“Obviously, if someone brings in a 10-point buck, we are probably not even going to bother asking,” Shaw said.
Believed spread by nose-to-nose contact, chronic wasting disease destroys the brain in deer and elk and causes the animals to become thin and die. The untreatable illness is similar to mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
But little is known about it. There is no evidence the neurological disease can be transmitted to humans by eating venison, but there is no scientific proof it can’t be.
The disease is now in 11 states, including Colorado and New Mexico. Wisconsin has established its own lab and plans to test 500 deer per county this season, a total of 50,000, because the disease is in its deer herd.
State wildlife officials are still awaiting test results from six deer killed near the lthe infected Oklahoma County elk herd.
Because more states are now testing for chronic wasting disease, Shaw doesn’t expect results from samples collected this week for several months. The U. S. Department of Agriculture is paying for the tests, which costs $55 each.
Shaw suspects the disease will be found in one or two more states this year simply because more states are now testing. Texas and Missouri are collecting samples from deer check stations for the first time this year, he said.
It seems almost inevitable that a case of chronic wasting disease will be found in Oklahoma’s deer herd. Shaw doesn’t think so, but admits the possibility.
“We’re not that far from Colorado and Wyoming and we have had deer and elk moved in here from elsewhere,” Shaw said. “It wouldn’t shock me to see it. At the same time, I am somewhat hopeful, based on all the deer we looked at in the past has all been negative.”
The state wildlife department has prepared a contingency plan for dealing with chronic wasting disease if discovered here. Shaw will not discuss details because it hasn’t been approved by the Oklahoma Wildlife Commission.
“I’m hopeful that we don’t find it and don’t have to deal with it,” he said. “Should we find it here, it’s not the end of the world and the end of deer hunting.”