At the Cornell University diagnostics lab, a brain sample is being taken from the corpse of a deer. This is where deer are tested for Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD. This deer was acting dazed, walking in circles in a resident’s backyard. It eventually got scared, ran into a fence, and died. It may have been dazed after being hit by a car, but, in case of disease, a sample needs to be taken.
CWD is a highly contagious disease that can have a devastating impact on the wild and captive deer populations. New York State is safe, so far. It released a report earlier this year saying the state is another year clear of the disease.
A deer can live for a year after becoming infected, all the while spreading abnormal infectious proteins – prions – through its urine, feces, saliva, or from its body decomposing. The prions can be absorbed into soil and plants. Dr. Krysten Schuler is trying to minimize that.
“It’s a matter of keeping things contained and off the landscape,” Schuler explained. “Which is why prevention is so important.”
Schuler is a wildlife disease ecologist working with New York on a risk management program. After a deer tested positive for CWD in 2005, the state revised their surveillance program to be more pro-active.
“We’re assuming that there’s a hazard there until it’s proven to be safe,” said Schuler. “It’s the opposite of the burden of proof, where you’re innocent until proven guilty. This is guilty until proven innocent.”
Last year, they collected about 2,500 samples from different deer. Schuler said the tests alone cost around $60,000, but it cost the state over $1 million to control that one case in 2005.
Twenty-one states have reported cases of CWD in their wild herds. It’s very contagious. Schuler said, if unchecked, it could devastate deer populations.
“I know it’s hard to imagine now, when we have so many suburban deer issues with overpopulation,” she said. “This disease could essentially make deer extinct in decades.”
So, the state hopes to stay out in front of it.