Incurable, deer-killing chronic wasting disease now spreading in eastern Kansas counties

Chronic wasting disease, which infects deer and is always fatal, wasn't found until 2020 in eastern Kansas, the Kansas Fish and Game Commission was told this month.

But CWD was detected that year in eastern Kansas counties that included Osage and Franklin. In 2021, eastern counties with CWD detected included Jackson, Wabaunsee, Bourbon and Woodson.

"And now we find the sparks flaring up in the east," said presenter Shane Hesting.

Hesting, who is wildlife disease coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, showed a chart saying CWD is thought to afflict 24% to 45% of the deer population in northwest Kansas, 25% to 38% in north-central Kansas, 14% to 28% in southwest Kansas, 0.5% to 4% in south-central Kansas and 0.1% to 0.7% in eastern Kansas.

Previously: Kansas deer hunters can get free testing for chronic wasting disease. Here's how.

Chronic wasting disease, which infects deer and is always fatal, has been detected over the past two years in eastern Kansas.
Chronic wasting disease, which infects deer and is always fatal, has been detected over the past two years in eastern Kansas.

Presentation left commission chairman feeling overwhelmed

CWD is a progressive, incurable disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and many other tissues of farmed and free-ranging deer, elk and moose, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s no evidence of CWD's being transmissible to people, though the CDC has discouraged the public from eating meat from infected animals.

CWD always results in death among infected animals, says one website maintained by KDWP through which it is educating the public about it.

As of June 30, 2021, CWD had been detected in Kansas in two captive elk, one captive mule deer and 547 wild, free-ranging deer, according to a separate KDWP website.

CWD has been found in 58 of the state's 105 counties, with the number of annual statewide positive tests rising from 127 in 2019 to 186 in 2020 to 195 in 2021, Hesting said.

He said the state's significant rise in positive tests in 2020 was due in part to the initiation that year of a partnership between KDWP and the University of Missouri. That caused statewide testing, which had been conducted previously, to resume.

The information Hesting shared left fish and game commission chairman Gerald Lauber feeling "overwhelmed," Lauber acknowledged at that meeting.

More on CWD: More than 300 deer to be killed at a Wisconsin farm found to have 'zombie deer disease'

'When they get clinical, they wander around'

CWD is spread through the environment, and through saliva, feces and urine of infected animals, according to the KDWP website.

"Outside of family groups, deer do not naturally congregate in the same area, which slows the transmission of CWD," it says. "Be cautious as feed, bait, and mineral licks can unnaturally congregate animals, causing the spread of CWD."

CWD progresses in each infected animal over an incubation period of 16 to 24 months, that site says.

"For most of that time, the infected animal does not show signs of infection," it says. "But during the final progression, symptoms like lack of coordination, poor body condition, hanging the head, drooling, wide stance and lack of fear of people begin to appear."

Hesting told the fish and game commission: "When they get clinical, they wander around. They just don't have their marbles. They'll run into fences."

Previously: What is the 'zombie deer disease'? 10 things to know about CWD

CWD cases have risen over the years

Kansas saw its first CWD case in 2001, with the infected animal being a captive bull elk that had been transported from Colorado to Harper County in south-central Kansas, Hesting said.

Authorities "moved in fast and got rid of that herd," he said.

Kansas' next case was detected in 2005 in Cheyenne County in the state's northwest corner.

The state's number of positive CWD tests rose in the years that followed, first in northwest Kansas, then in north-central and southwest Kansas.

When CWD becomes present in a geographic region, it initially operates "at a low level," then rises exponentially, Hesting told the commission.

CWD appears to be relatively uncommon in eastern Kansas, he said.

But unless something is done, Hesting said, CWD over the next 20 years will become as prevalent in eastern Kansas as it is now in the western part of the state.

How is the state getting the word out?

Brody Latham, marketing manager for KDWP, told fish and game commissioners Aug. 4 about steps that agency has been taking to share information about CWD.

KDWP has used posters, flyers, billboards, digital ads and social media to get the word out, Latham said.

The agency maintains informational websites and on the KDWP website, he said.

Digital ads have been used to draw people to those two websites, Latham said.

He said the state had seen about 150,000 page views at the two sites, with time on site ranging from 3 minutes, 47 seconds to 5 minutes, 29 seconds.

"That tells me that these people are interested in the content," Latham said. "They're willing to spend their time to read and consume that information, and that's what we would hope to see."

More on CWD: Further spread of chronic wasting disease alarms hunters, wildlife officials

What should hunters do?

The KDWP website urges deer hunters concerned about the potential for CWD to "dress, test and suppress" deer they have shot.

According to that site:

• When possible, hunters should bone out meat and leave the carcass at the hunting site. The next best alternative is to quarter the animal, leaving the spinal column and head at the hunting site.

• All deer should be tested for CWD before processing and consuming. Deer hunters were able to get free testing for CWD during last year's deer season, though no announcement has been made regarding the upcoming season.

• If the animal is transported from the hunting site to be processed, the carcass should be returned to the hunting site or disposed of in a local landfill. The greatest cause of the spread of CWD is humans transporting infected animals in vehicles.

Tim Hrenchir can be reached at or 785-213-5934.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Incurable chronic wasting disease now being detected in eastern Kansas