New DNR grants target deer disease — before disease targets us
Russ Mason isn't saying chronic wasting disease will spread from deer and their brethren to other species, including our own. He's careful about that.
But "evidence is mounting," said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Chief, "that it can" — one of multiple reasons the DNR will parcel out up to $4.7 million in new grants to help protect the state's deer, elk and moose.
Partnering with Michigan State University, the DNR hopes to find new ammunition in the fight against an invariably fatal ailment that could ultimately affect everything the agency does.
The goal is to inspire innovation and potentially create collaborations across state lines or between disciplines.
"The vast majority of our resources come from license dollars," Mason said, "and in a state as deer-centric as Michigan, most of that is deer related. Virtually everything we do for wildlife, game or non-game; for threatened or endangered species; for sensitive habitats — all of that is balanced on our license structure."
If the deer population becomes decimated, he said, so will the DNR budget, taking a toll on "all those things people enjoy."
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) comes from the same family as mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and is protein based, said DNR wildlife veterinarian Kelly Straka, making it a "relative rarity in the veterinary world."
While it's unknown whether CWD can infect humans, said a Centers for Disease Control report, "studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures to CWD."
Caused by a normal protein known as a prion that folds incorrectly, CWD prompts a slow degeneration of the brain that ultimately leads to emaciation, odd behavior, loss of bodily functions and death.
Spread by contact with other animals or contaminated food or grounds, CWD becomes infectious quickly, but deer can appear disease-free for 18 months before the effects become obvious within 30 days of death.
Once infected, Mason said, landscapes "as far as we know cannot be disinfected. Prions are not affected by cold. They're not susceptible to heat except at cremation levels. All the disinfectants people think about, they don't work."
CWD was first found in a free-ranging Michigan deer in May 2015. Since then, it has been confirmed in eight Lower Peninsula counties and one in the Upper Peninsula.
Testing is done on severed heads and is a lengthy process that includes soaking pieces of brain and lymph nodes in formaldehyde for five days. In 2019, Mason said, the DNR expects to test 45,000 deer at $120 apiece, a total of $5.4 million, "and those are dollars we cannot devote to other conservation activities."
Among the goals of the new grant program is to make the evaluations quicker, easier and cheaper. Straka noted that a University of Minnesota professor, Peter Larsen, is working on a test that wildlife officers could perform instantly with a hand-held device called a flow cell.
"There are states working with universities," she said. "We certainly hope they'll be submitting proposals."
Roughly $2 million of the $4.7 million will target the science of the disease — things like early detection and the role of soil and water. Another $1.5 million will be devoted to applied research on such subjects as transmission pathways and predicting new infestations.
About $700,000 will be devoted to outreach, Straka said, helping people realize the scope of the problem and how they can help solve it. The DNR warns against baiting and feeding, for instance, because it brings clusters of deer into contact with one another.
For hunters who process a deer themselves, she said, "they might pitch the carcass out back. What can we do to make sure we aren't making things worse?"
The remaining $500,000 will encourage collaboration, "drawing on some of the expertise in other localities."
According to the state, only 119 free-ranging deer have been found with CWD out of 60,715 tested. But the danger lies in the unknown, Mason said, not the lab.
"We don't know how to stop this disease," he said. "No one ever has."