Deer disease cuts down trophy buck population in Kansas

TOPEKA (KSNT) – Experts say the rise of a deadly deer disease could spell bad news for Kansas hunters going forward.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a disease targeting deer in the U.S. is on the rise. The CDC revealed a map in November 2023 displaying which states are feeling the impact of chronic wasting disease (CWD) the most. Including Kansas, 30 other states are reporting the presence of animals showing signs of CWD, also referred to as ‘zombie deer disease.’

CWD poses a long-term threat to wildlife and poses a danger to the state’s hunting industry. Take a deep dive into where the threat stands and what the experts are reporting below.

What is CWD?

CWD is described as a progressive, fatal disease targeting the brain, spinal cord and other tissues in deer, elk and moose, according to the CDC’s website. CWD belongs to a wider family of prion diseases such as scrapie and mad cow disease.

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The disease spreads between animals through contact with contaminated body fluids and tissue or through the consumption of contaminated water and/or food. Deterioration of the infected animal may occur slowly as CWD has an incubation period lasting more than a year. Animals who are infected may display the following:

  • Fast weight loss

  • Stumbling

  • Lack of coordination

  • Listlessness

  • Drooling

  • Excessive thirst or urination

  • Drooping ears

  • Lack of fear around people

CWD is hard to diagnose in moose, elk and deer based on the above symptoms alone as many of the disease’s symptoms occur alongside other diseases and malnutrition, according to the CDC. In every case of infection, CWD is lethal.

What is the CDC reporting?

The CDC released the below map showing data gathered by wildlife agencies and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on which states and counties have confirmed reports of CWD. In total, 414 counties across the country, including 49 in Kansas, have confirmed reports of the disease.

<em>(Photo Courtesy/CDC)</em>
(Photo Courtesy/CDC)

Once established in an area, CWD can pose a threat for years to follow and increase the chances it will spread to surrounding lands, according to the CDC. For Kansas, the majority of CWD cases are located in the western half of the state but wildlife experts say this is changing.

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CWD in Kansas

KSNT 27 News interviewed two experts with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) to find out where the disease stands in 2024: Wildlife Disease Program Coordinator Shane Hesting and Big Game Program Coordinator Levi Jaster. When asked if Kansas hunters should be worried about the rise in CWD cases, Hesting said the primary issue at hand is CWD killing off older deer, which is cutting down the trophy buck population in Kansas.

CWD takes a toll on older deer due to its long incubation period which is typically 18-24 months. Hesting said female deer only have one chance to reproduce before they die of the disease.

“We like to refer to CWD as a “glacier” that slowly works on the population; whereas, EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) is an “avalanche” that quickly emerges, kills a bunch of deer, and then goes away every year,” Hesting said. “CWD doesn’t go away; it just grinds away at the population. We will have to live with CWD for a very long time.”

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In 2024, KDWP biologists are monitoring a continued rise in the number of detected CWD cases in the Kansas deer herd. The first positive case was detected in 2005 in Cheyenne County with KDWP biologists sampling more than 2,000 deer every year and not finding any cases of CWD up to that point.

However, starting in the 2012-2013 season, CWD cases became more common. Hesting said it won’t be surprising to see upwards of 80% of deer in some areas to be infected with CWD.

“I think we may have some areas at or close to that 80% now,” Hesting said. “Based on my experience, I expect the eastern half of the state to resemble what we have in the west after another 15-20 years.”

While CWD is currently found in species like white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, red deer, caribou and moose, Hesting said recent studies have found pronghorns may also be susceptible. That being said, the KDWP has yet to detect CWD in any of the Kansas pronghorn populations.

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“All deer in the state are thought to be susceptible to CWD,” Hesting said. “Although CWD is—by far—the worst in the western half of the state, and now there are “sparks” of infection popping up in eastern counties. It is thought, and has been for a long time, that soils with a higher clay content may contribute more to overall prevalence than soils without clay. Prions bind to clay and become several hundred times more infectious after doing so.”

The KDWP has taken action in recent times to quell CWD cases such as hosting antlerless doe seasons to reduce contact rates and lower densities. These have been shown to decrease crashes, crop damage and the degradation of the local environment. Hesting said the KDWP is currently trying to find out how to respond to interstate and intrastate transportation of deer carcasses to cut down on CWD’s opportunities to spread to new regions.

“We just completed a genetic project that looked at CWD resistance genes in our deer herd,” Jaster said. “Those genes are found throughout Kansas in whitetails, but at low percentages.  Whereas our mule deer herd has very few instances of resistance genes occurring which is especially troubling since our mule deer are found in western Kansas where CWD prevalence is greatest.”

There have been no documented cases yet of a person contracting the disease. However, Jaster emphasizes that uncertainties surrounding CWD and its incubation times have led the KDWP to tell people “the risk to humans is not zero.”

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What is the KDWP recommending?

Hesting said there are several tips he has for Kansas deer hunters to help reduce the spread and impact of CWD in the state. These include:

  • Using E-tag whenever possible. This allows hunters to leave deer carcasses where the deer was harvested. If this isn’t possible, he recommends taking the deer’s bones to a landfill or double bagging the remains and putting them in a dumpster to prevent CWD from being introduced to a new area. You can learn more about E-tagging by clicking here.

  • Avoid large gatherings of deer. Hesting says hunters should avoid creating large congregations of deer as this can give CWD, and other diseases, a chance to spread among the population.

  • Have your deer tested for CWD. The KDWP offers limited free testing for deer on a first-come, first-serve basis.

  • Report sightings of sick deer. Deer showing the signs of CWD infection are actively spreading the disease and need to be removed.

  • Hunt deer. Hunters help keep CWD down through hunting activities which keep deer densities down.

More information on CWD sampling and testing results from the KDWP can be found by clicking here.

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