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Chronic wasting disease is delivering agonizing death to Minnesota's deer

They spend their final days wobbling around, drooling, and becoming a skeletal husk of their former selves.

They spend their final days wobbling around, drooling, and becoming a skeletal husk of their former selves. Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

In February, out in Crow Wing County, state wildlife officials found an emaciated female deer near Trophy Woods Ranch – a pay-to-hunt operation. A test of the doe’s remains confirmed their fears: The deer had been sickened by chronic wasting disease (CWD), and had very likely spent its final days wobbling around, drooling, and becoming a skeletal husk of its former self.

It was a gruesome death, and a bad sign. It was the first sign of the disease creeping into the wild outside of southeastern Minnesota, where an outbreak is raging. There is no treatment and no cure. And Minnesotans in the know are starting to worry.

Deer are the star attraction of our $1.3 billion hunting industry. So far, there have been 51 confirmed cases in wild deer, and it’s been wreaking havoc on the deer farming industry. Sometimes, a few deer will be infected, necessitating that entire herds be wiped out – as was the case at Trophy Woods Ranch.

“From an agricultural perspective, we are concerned,” Board of Animal Health Director Beth Thompson says. She can’t comment yet on how the Minnesota Legislature is responding CWD – not until the session is over. But some argue the $5 million or so proposed to address the disease is little more than “chump change.”

“One needs only to look to Wisconsin, where CWD is endemic in large portions of its deer herd, to see what lies in store for Minnesota if our collective failure to act continues,” Star Tribune columnist Dennis Anderson wrote.

Still, for those who don’t hunt or spend a lot of time thinking about wildlife or the economy of our state, this concerns you too. CWD may be a disease, but it isn’t caused by a bacteria, virus, or parasite. The real culprit is a prion protein, which can be found in healthy brains and other tissues. When a prion gets messed up  and causes other prions to do the same, it can set off a chain reaction ending in a neuron massacre in the brain.

When this happens to a deer, it can take up to a year to show symptoms. But when it does, it includes a wasting away of the body, stumbling, listlessness, and other signs of a brain gradually attacking itself. Followed by death.

It’s an upsetting concept in and of itself, but the truly frightening thing about prion diseases is that they can be transmittable from deer to deer, and to other cervine species like elk. We’re not really sure yet how many affected prions have been shed into the environment, or how long they remain infectious.

Even more troubling, consuming that meat can sometimes pass it on to humans. The most infamous of these is mad cow disease, which devastated the British farming community in 1986 and first manifested in the United States in 2003.

Fortunately, there have been no reported cases of CWD infecting people yet. But animal studies suggest it does pose a risk to our close relatives in the animal kingdom – like monkeys and apes. Dr. Michael Holm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Duluth News Tribune that CWD jumping to humans is “not a matter of if, but when.”