MSU researcher helps battle deadly deer disease

Dale Young
The Detroit News
An army of garden trolls have no effect on this young buck, who was focused on apples from the tree overhead. A deer with advanced CWD would have it's ribs and hips clearly visible through the skin and would be drooling excessively with no fear of humans.

Jonathan Trudeau, a Ph.D. student at Michigan State, came to the university after attending college in New Hampshire to help fight chronic wasting disease in Michigan's deer population.

His high-tech tools include GPS tracking collars, laptop computers and satellite imagery.

But sometimes he resorts to getting out in the field. While driving through a suburban neighborhood near Lansing recently, looking for collared deer, Trudeau stopped to chat with residents.

"We have very good interaction with residents around here," he said. "Everyone's really receptive to the research that we're doing." 

Trudeau and other researchers from MSU and the state Department of Natural Resources are using technology and old-fashioned observation to track Michigan deer in hopes of curbing the deadly disease.

“Our goal is to produce new techniques and data that will help the Michigan DNR reduce the spread of CWD,” said Trudeau, who is part of a joint research project that includes MSU's Boone and Crockett Quantitative Wildlife Center.

According to DNR records, more than 31,000 deer have been tested for the disease since 2015, and 60 have tested positive. Those deer were found in Clinton, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Kent and Montcalm counties.

Michigan is home to an estimated 1.75 million white-tailed deer. 

Chronic wasting disease was first discovered in Colorado in 1967 and now infects as much as 16 percent of that state’s deer population.

It is a contagious neurological disease that causes degeneration of the brains of infected animals, resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death, according to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance.

The disease can be spread when deer come in contact with other deer. The prions, or deformed proteins that cause chronic wasting disease are spread in the deer’s saliva, urine and feces. In areas where deer concentrate, the disease can spread easily – particularly since adult deer mark their territory using saliva and urine.

Trudeau's part of the joint research project is to gather data that will help the DNR better understand how the deer move around and, based on that information, formulate policies to control the disease's spread.

The hands-on part of the project began last winter when 57 deer were captured and equipped with ear tags and a GPS collar. Equipped with a two-year battery, the collar collects detailed data of the deer’s movements.

In addition to recording the deer’s exact location every 30 minutes, it uploads the location via satellite every 150 minutes to the researchers’ computers. 

“We’re collecting high-resolution location data, which allows us to tell what type of habitat the deer are using," he said. 

“The big thing we want to identify is how these deer move across the landscape, since CWD is spread through direct contact and indirect contact," Trudeau said. “We then look at how various landscape features (like rivers or highways) are helping or hindering these movements. That helps us identify areas we should be looking for CWD in the future.”

The project already has gathered some startling data. White-tailed deer go through “dispersal events,” where they move to a new area permanently, sometimes as far as eight miles away. It may happen when their current area becomes crowded, or for better food, or other reasons.

But some movements don’t fit that mold.

MSU researcher Jonathan Trudeau breaks out a directional antenna to help find some of the deer his group has tagged with GPS trackers.

“We have one deer that lives near Eagle, Michigan. One day, she just took off and started walking northeast,” Trudeau said. “When she reached Sleepy Hollow State Park, she stayed there for a day, and then walked back home. Each leg of the trip was more than 18 miles.“

This trip is called an “excursion event,” Trudeau adds. “It’s hard to say what triggers these movements … but our research will help identify if there’s a pattern.”

If the deer had been carrying the disease and shedding the prions, she could have infected many more deer along her trek. “We test each deer when we tag it, for CWD and other diseases as well, and they are all very healthy deer, or they wouldn’t be part of the project,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau and the other MSU and DNR researchers plan to tag and collar about 50 more deer this winter. The data from all of these animals will provide biologists and those who shape Michigan’s wildlife policies with valuable information about population interactions in both rural and suburban areas. 

A  white-tailed deer seeks refuge from the heat in a creek in southern Clinton County.

Some of the tracking subjects are living less than a quarter-mile from the spot where the first infected deer was found.

While it is not believed that chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to humans, the Center for Disease Control recommends caution around an infected animal. Most experts recommend that hunters don’t eat a deer that is found to be infected. 

Since outward symptoms may not appear for 18 months after the animal is infected, the DNR tells hunters and others who handle deer to wear rubber gloves and have all animals tested.

Other recommendations for hunters include boning out the meat instead of sawing through bone, and minimizing the handling of brain and spinal tissues. If you have your deer or elk commercially processed, request that your animal is processed individually, untainted by meat from other animals.

2018 Michigan deer hunting seasons

Early antlerless firearm season: Sept. 22-23 in select areas.

Liberty Hunt: Sept. 22-23 (hunters with disabilities and youth).

Independence Hunt: Oct. 18-21 (hunters with disabilities).

Archery season: Oct. 1-Nov. 14 and Dec. 1-Jan. 1.

Regular firearm season: Nov. 15-30.

Muzzleloader season: Dec. 7-16 (Zones 1 and 2); Dec. 7-23 (Zone 3).

Late anterless firearm season: Dec. 17-Jan. 1 in select areas.