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As deadly deer disease spreads across the Midwest, it's become 'everybody's job' to fight

Two deer stand in a field.
NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
Chronic wasting disease — a fatal illness that eats away at the brains of deer, elk and moose — threatens wildlife and hunting economies across the Midwest and Great Plains.

Chronic wasting disease — which affects deer, elk and moose — continues to spread throughout the Great Plains and Midwest. Just this year, authorities in western Oklahoma detected the state’s first case in a free-ranging deer.

After about 40 years of hunting in his home state, for the first time John Heaston killed a deer that tested positive for chronic wasting disease just last year.

As head of the Nebraska Sportsmen’s Foundation, Heaston has had plenty of conversations about the fatal, infectious disease that eats away at the brains of deer and elk. But the positive test still came as a surprise: the deer had looked healthy.

"It’s kind of everybody’s job to stay on top of this,” he said. “It’s not like you can bring all the deer in for a checkup every year and give them a booster shot or vaccination."

A man in a bright orange hat and coat poses with a dead deer.
John Heaston
John Heaston with his hunted deer near Stockville, Nebraska. The deer looked healthy, but later tested positive for chronic wasting disease. “It could have ruined the whole hunt,” he said. “It’s not like they sprout an orange flag out of their butt if they’ve got one of these diseases so you know you don’t want to harvest it.” 

Heaston abandoned the meat after learning the deer had tested positive. While no evidence so far suggests that humans can contract the disease from eating infected meat, it’s not recommended.

Like Heaston, most hunters are aware of the disease, even if they haven’t harvested an infected animal.

Chronic wasting disease has been in parts of the Great Plains and Midwest since at least 2000, and continues to spread throughout the region. It’s been found in wild deer in 31 states across the U.S. since 1981.

Krysten Schuler is a wildlife disease ecologist at Cornell University and studies chronic wasting disease. She said the disease essentially forms a plaque on the animal’s brain, killing the cells and leaving holes in the brain.

“You’re obviously not able to function as well with holes in your brain,” Schuler said. “You’re probably not as aware and are more likely to be killed by something.”

She said animals likely contract the disease by bumping noses with an infected animal or by eating forage contaminated with fluids. Schuler has found that areas with pervasive chronic wasting disease tend to have younger deer populations overall.

“The deer are dying sooner and at a younger age,” she said. “That means they’re not having another generation of offspring, which can start leading to population declines.”

In states like Nebraska or Kansas – where the disease has been detected in the majority of counties – Schuler said monitoring is most important.

“Once the prevalence gets above a certain level, you don’t have the same opportunities to eliminate the disease,” she said. “You have to go into management to limit the spread, slow it down and keep it from creeping too high.”

A map of the United States and Canada shows where chronic wasting disease has been detected.
United States Geological Survey
Authorities have found chronic wasting disease in wild deer, elk and moose populations in 31 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces and in captive facilities in 18 states and three provinces.

Hunters can help mitigate the disease by de-boning carcasses at the kill site and minimizing contact with the brain and spinal cord of harvested animals.

Non-hunters can also help mitigate the disease by reporting deer that act abnormally or appear to be sick.

Chronic wasting disease in Oklahoma

In many places across the Midwest and Great Plains, managing chronic wasting disease has become part of the landscape for hunters and wildlife agencies.

But in Oklahoma – which just detected its first case in a free-ranging wild deer this year in the state’s panhandle – Schuler said there’s more opportunity to keep the disease at bay.

Matt Gamble leads wildlife conservation for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and hopes to prevent chronic wasting disease from getting to the tribe's land in southeast Oklahoma.

Using a grant from the federal government, Gamble said the tribe would expand testing for hunters and work with other agencies to establish a protocol in case the disease is detected on the reservation.

“We want to make sure we have a good, sturdy plan in the unfortunate event that there was a positive result,” he said. “We don’t want to be out there throwing horseshoes in the dark.”

White-tailed deer are the top big game animal in Oklahoma and especially in the Choctaw Nation’s rolling hills and pine woods.

Gamble said whitetail deer are a “cultural phenomenon” for the tribe and its visitors, which often spend big bucks for hunting permits and support local restaurants and hotels during their hunt.

“If you come down to the Choctaw Nation during the open season, all the schools are out, businesses are closed, because everyone’s taking vacation,” he said. “People live and breathe whitetails down here.”

A healthy deer population is also important for the tribe’s cultural practices, like tanning buckskins or adorning traditional dance regalia with deer hooves.

Gamble said the plan to protect against chronic wasting disease echoes the tribe’s long history of wildlife management and conservation that came well before state and federal models.

“There’s an intrinsic value for tribal members to see whitetail deer in their yard and know it’s the result of good land management,” he said. “It’s proven that we can manage the resources on our reservation, and this is another expression of our sovereignty.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Elizabeth Rembert reports on agriculture out of Nebraska for Harvest Public Media.
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