Charlie Booher

April 8, 2019

What Is Chronic Wasting Disease and How Does it Kill Deer and Elk?

The key to understanding the threat of CWD is learning more about the particles that cause it

My home in Wisconsin is less than 20 miles away from the detection site of the first case of Chronic Wasting Disease east of the Mississippi River in 2002. Michigan State University, where I attend school, is within the same proximity of the first detected case in the state of Michigan. It is safe to say that this disease has been in my backyard for most of my life.

As the disease spreads across the country, more and more hunters are finding CWD in their backyards, too. And while its name is increasingly familiar among sportsmen and women, CWD still remains a source of confusion for many.

Much of this confusion pertains to the small particles that cause it, known as prions. Although we commonly associate transmissible diseases with viruses and bacteria, prions are neither. Nor are they Fungi. They are not even alive.

So just what are these things, how do they spread, and why should we be worried about them?

Prions 101

The term “prion” is derived from “proteinaceous infectious particle,” and it was coined in 1982 by Stanley B. Prusiner of the University Of California San Francisco. In the United States, it is commonly pronounced PREE-on, while in the U.K. it is usually said PRY-on.

In short, prions are malformed proteins. Like other proteins, they are made up of complex chains of amino acids and exist in the membranes of many normal cells. Many forms of prions are not harmful, but certain prions can be highly destructive when they accumulate in the brain or other nervous tissues of an organism.

As prions do not have their own genetic information, they cannot reproduce independently, like bacteria, or through a host cell, like a virus. Prion molecules are dangerous because they “reproduce” by denaturing the normal proteins that are in close proximity to them. This process both facilitates the spread of the disease through the body and can cause the degradation of nervous tissue.

[Jump to: These Changes Are Worth Your Time to Stop the Spread of Chronic Wasting Disease]
Modeled structure of a prion, by Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformatics Institute
How CWD Kills

Prion-caused diseases, CWD among them, form holes in the brains of affected organisms and are known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies, or TSEs—a very technical name for diseases that affects the brain (Encephalo = brain; pathy = disorder) by causing nervous tissue to become porous (spongiform = sponge-like), and can be spread from one individual to another (transmissible). These neurodegenerative disorders exhibit a comparatively long incubation period, are fatal in all circumstances, and include “Mad Cow” disease in bovid species, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

Because they are not alive, prions cannot be killed. The collection of amino acid molecules comprising a prion must be chemically denatured to lose their detrimental capabilities. As a result, prions are incredibly resilient to change–exposure of up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit will not deform the proteins—and can remain in a given environment for long periods of time.

In a deer infected with the disease, prions may be found in diverse body fluids and tissues, but particularly those relating to the nervous system. Bodily contact, urine, feces, and saliva can all serve as transmission vectors. In addition, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that prions can also be present in and spread through environmental vectors, including soil columns and waterways.

[Jump to: Experts Respond to Chronic Wasting Disease Skeptics]
Chronic Wasting Disease sample sorting, photo courtesy of USFWS
The Big Picture Threat

It is important to consider the epidemiology of CWD when comparing it to other threats against whitetail herds. Due to the nature of this disease, it can take years of prion buildup for a deer to exhibit symptoms of CWD such as weight loss, stumbling, lethargy, and other neurological conditions, whereas viral diseases like EHD (Epizootic hemorrhagic disease) can be evident after only seven days. This is one reason why hunters do not often find heaps of deer carcasses in the field from CWD, but see mass die-offs from EHD more often. However, this does not mean that CWD is not harmful. In fact, this feature makes CWD more insidious because it is more difficult to detect early infections.

While there has never been a recorded case of cervid-human transmission, the Center for Disease Control advises against eating meat from infected individuals. As early as 1997, the World Health Organization recommended that known agents of prion diseases be kept out of the food chain. Recent research suggests that CWD could be transmissible to primates, but this has only been studied on Cynomolgus Macaques and was a single, limited study.

The nature of this disease, especially the rapid transmission and longevity of prions, makes CWD the biggest threat to herds of whitetail, mule deer, elk, and moose populations. If hunters and conservationists hope to successfully combat this disease, it will be important to support wildlife professionals and scientists in their research efforts to learn more about prions and how to appropriately address their effect.

Take action to support better research and testing for CWD across the country.

 

This was originally posted July 13, 2018 and has been updated. 

8 Responses to “What Is Chronic Wasting Disease and How Does it Kill Deer and Elk?”

  1. Yeah, years ago in the 1990’s I was performing timber survey’s in Public Forest the Apache/Sitgreaves N.F., and I was close to a cow-elk and she was kinda’ spinning herself in cicles and shaking her head. She was concerned for me and my close proximity to her but not too much. That was when I first was introduced to this CWD. Thanks for your informative research report you provided, ya’ll do excellent work.

  2. UNLESS STATES REQUIRE CWD CHECKS ON ALL HARVESTED, FARM RAISED, OR ON PRESERVES ETC. CWD WILL NOT EVEN BE SLOWED DOWN. I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE COLORADO DOES NOT REQUIRE CHECKS ON ALL HARVESTED ELK AND DEER. SEEMS TO ME THEY HAVE NOT HELPED MUCH AT ALL TO CURTAIL THIS DISEASE!

  3. Sounds as though it would be extremely difficult to eliminate these denatured proteins from the environment. I suspect the answer more logically involves finding a way to make the affected cervids “immune” from the effects of the prion much the same as humans (currently) are. And much better if that immunity could then be passed along to offspring of immune parents. I may not be a fan of genetic manipulation but it may have a place here. C’mon whiz kids put my college tuition money to use.

  4. ”Bodily contact, urine, feces, and saliva can all serve as transmission vectors.”
    Maybe deer should be dispersed from areas of high contact and concentration.
    Like every federal refuge where hunting is not allowed.

  5. My concern is if a hunter harvests a deer with CWD and it appears healthy, he consumes the deer, is this a danger to to his health? Is there any danger to consuming a deer that has just come in contact with these prions? Will this lead to no one wanting to hunt deer?

  6. Ian Courts

    Wolves are the natural cure for CWD infections. They can detect affected deer long before the disease is evident to humans. Where there are wolves the herds remain healthy.

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Kristyn Brady

March 27, 2019

Recreational Fishing Groups Formally Object to “Sustainable” Stamp on Menhaden Fishery

Mining the base of the food chain is neither sustainable nor economically justifiable

Today, three recreational fishing groups filed a formal objection against the Marine Stewardship Council’s recommendation that Omega Protein should receive a certification of sustainability for its U.S. Atlantic menhaden purse-seining operations. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, American Sportfishing Association, and Coastal Conservation Association signed onto the objection, filed with MSC’s leaders in the United Kingdom.

The industrial harvest of this important forage fish by a single foreign-owned company, Cooke Inc.’s Omega Protein, has a negative impact on striped bass and other sportfish that rely on menhaden for food. Earlier this month, MSC—a private international organization, not a government entity—signaled that it would likely put its stamp of approval on Omega’s menhaden reduction fishing operation, in which the oily baitfish is harvested and reduced into meal, pet food, and other products.

MSC reached this conclusion in spite of the fact that menhaden stocks are less than half of what they would be without industrial harvest, which currently suppresses the striped bass stocks on the East Coast by about 30 percent. Striped bass are the single most valuable marine recreational fishery in the country.

“This certification would put a blue ribbon on the practice of robbing sportfish of their forage base, even as striped bass numbers decline in the Atlantic,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. His organization collaborated with a legal team to object to MSC’s findings and rallied individual anglers to sign an open letter opposing the certification. “We felt it was important to put pressure on MSC, in every venue possible, not to do this. It is irresponsible to call Omega’s operation sustainable when it affects striped bass numbers and the recreational fishing economy.”

MSC’s published assessment indicates that the certification of sustainability would be granted on the condition that Omega reach certain milestones over four years—not because the operation can be considered sustainable now. Sportfishing groups objected to the rationale behind two of these conditions and the MSC’s overall method of assessing the stock’s status.

“The MSC certification undermines ten years of work by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to establish ecosystem reference points for Atlantic menhaden, a process expected to be concluded in the next year,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “For sportfishing businesses on the East Coast, the stakes are very high going into the striped bass season. Menhaden are an important food source for striped bass, and the latest striped bass stock assessment shows a continued decline in spawning stock biomass. This is the worst possible time for MSC to make a misstep like this.”

“In Maryland, anglers are concerned with the health and future outlook for many different recreational fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast, and menhaden are a major piece of the ecological foundation and balance in the region,” says David Sikorski, executive director of CCA Maryland. “This is why we anxiously await management options to be unveiled after nearly 20 years of conversation on how to manage these important fish for their role in the ecosystem. It would be negligent for MSC to hand out its certification just as the game is about to change.”

 

Top photo by Stephan Lowy

Kristyn Brady

March 22, 2019

Video: Something’s Fishy With This Announcement About Atlantic Menhaden

When there’s not enough bunker left in the water to support striped bass, can you really call commercial harvest of these forage fish sustainable?

Marnee Banks

March 14, 2019

TRCP’s President and CEO Offers Senators Solutions for Improving Public Land Access

Whit Fosburgh testifies on Capitol Hill about opportunities to support the outdoor recreation economy.

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, testified on Capitol Hill today to highlight the contributions that hunters and anglers make to the outdoor recreation economy and conservation.

Fosburgh appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to share the perspective of sportsmen and women on habitat and public access.

“The loss of access to the outdoors and public lands has happened over decades, and it won’t turn around without a concentrated effort by Congress and the administration,” said Fosburgh. “Nearby access opportunities disappear when fish and wildlife habitat is lost. But lost access doesn’t always mean a locked gate. When fields in northern Virginia are turned into subdivisions or shopping malls, habitat and access are lost. Access is lost when a South Dakota CRP field is converted to row crops. Access is lost when a waterfowl marsh in Louisiana disappears into the Gulf of Mexico because we’ve built levees along the Mississippi River that starve those wetlands of the sediments they need to survive. In Florida, boat launches sit empty in the face of algal blooms and red tides.”

Fosburgh also noted that demographic changes have had profound effects on access, especially in the West, where 72 percent of hunters depend on public lands for their hunting access.

“For much of the last century, a knock on the door and a friendly smile were often all it took to access or cross private lands in pursuit of fish and game,” said Fosburgh. “But in recent years, many working farms and ranches have changed hands. Some were subdivided, while others became second homes or recreational properties where ‘no trespassing’ signs and locked gates replaced de facto open access.”

Fosburgh called on Congress to take action by:

Fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress recently permanently authorized the LWCF, but for years the nation’s best conservation tool has been only funded at about 50 percent.

Directing the Forest Service and BLM to digitize all easements into electronic databases. Right now, neither the Forest Service nor the BLM are equipped to identify where they do or do not hold access across private lands, or where they should prioritize access acquisitions. This is because many of the agencies’ access easement records are still held on paper files at local offices and cannot be integrated into digital mapping systems that are foundational to public lands management in the twenty-first century.

Addressing the maintenance backlog on public lands. The maintenance backlogs are a staggering $11.6 billion for the National Park System; $2.2 billion for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management; and $5 billion for the Forest Service. The backlog manifests itself in degraded roads, trails, and campgrounds, all of which directly relate to quality access.

Including nature-based solutions in an infrastructure package. The upcoming Highway Bill is an opportunity to not only promote recreational access by investing in roads, trails, boat launches, and campgrounds but also by securing resources for migration crossings, aquatic connectivity, and barrier islands to protect coastal communities.

Taking recreational access into consideration in the BLM land disposal process. For the past year, 22 hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations have been encouraging the Department of the Interior to require that public access for outdoor recreation be considered when the BLM evaluates lands for disposal. We request that this change not only be administrative but also codified in statutory law.

Addressing climate change with smart public lands policies. The biggest threat to quality access and the outdoor economy is climate change. Hunters and anglers are on the front lines of our changing climate, with shifting migratory patterns, fishing closures due to heat, low flows, or algae blooms, invasive species, and longer wildfire seasons. Our nation’s public lands, if properly funded and managed, can serve as a bulwark against the worst impacts of climate.

Fosburgh’s entire testimony is available HERE. 

Read about Christy Plumer’s testimony at a House subcommittee hearing, which also took place this week.

Kristyn Brady

March 12, 2019

With Cuts in Trump’s Budget, Congress Must Lead on Conservation

Administration’s budget request indicates a continued appetite for major cuts to conservation, but Congress can choose to ignore the president’s recommendations

President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 includes deep cuts at the agencies that carry out conservation in America. Sportsmen and women are now looking to Congress to lead on the conservation of fish and wildlife habitat and investments in public lands access, water and soil quality, and the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy in the U.S.

“Even after conservation’s share of the federal budget has been slashed in half over the past 30 years, this proposal further handcuffs the agencies that are responsible for public land access, clean water, and healthy wildlife,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Congress has indicated that the health of our fish and wildlife populations, habitat, and outdoor recreation economy is a bipartisan issue and has reliable champions. We hope to see continued leadership in the House and Senate to ensure that investments in conservation are in keeping with the value of the American natural resources that are the envy of the world.”

The 150-page proposal recommends a 14-percent cut at the U.S. Department of the Interior and 31 percent less funding for the Environmental Protection Agency compared to Fiscal Year 2019. A $9-billion cut to U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs would come just months after Congress provided full funding for these critical programs in the 2018 Farm Bill. And the Army Corps of Engineers would take a 31-percent hit as flooding returns early to hard-hit areas.

The funding ask for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund is down to a fraction of its $900-million potential, despite having bipartisan support in Congress, and many line item reductions are at odds with administration priorities, like conserving migration corridors and enhancing hunting and fishing access.

One bright spot is a $21.5-million boost for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Its total funding of $509.5 million is dedicated to supporting more hunting and fishing opportunities than in years past, after a series of orders from this administration. If appropriated, this would be the highest funding level ever for the Refuge System.

It is important to note that the president’s budget is only a set of recommendations, and Congress has largely ignored cuts suggested in the president’s past two proposals. Government funding is slated to run out September 30, and Congress must pass appropriations legislation by that time to avoid another costly government shutdown.

Here’s how the president’s budget would affect fish, wildlife, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy.

Photo by Stephen Baker/BLM Oregon
Public Lands in Sportsmen’s Country

The Department of the Interior would see proposed cuts of $2 billion, or 14 percent, from the FY19 appropriated funding levels. Though the president’s budget acknowledges the need to allocate $300 million in additional wildfire suppression funds, severe cuts to critical fish and wildlife programs are a no-go for sportsmen and women.

The Bureau of Land Management is charged with managing 245 million acres—more than any other federal agency—and yet it is slated for an 11-percent cut, which would only make it more difficult for the BLM to do its job.

Sportsmen and women are among the first to be affected by a growing maintenance backlog on our public lands and infrastructure in dire need of repair. The budget’s proposed creation of a Public Lands Infrastructure fund using offshore and onshore energy revenues is a compelling solution to this problem, however the funds being put into this new maintenance account have been stripped away from the Land and Water Conservation Fund in this proposal.

Though conservationists support whittling down the maintenance backlog to accomplish better proactive conservation, it cannot be at the expense of this critically important program—the promise of LWCF must be fulfilled as well.

Hunting and Fishing Access

The TRCP has encouraged Congress to appropriate $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was permanently reauthorized in the recent public lands package without any guarantee for funding. This total includes 40 percent or $360 million for federal agencies, $27 million of which should be made available for establishing recreational access, in particular.

But the president’s budget includes just $7.5 million for land acquisition, and not a single penny of that would go to the Forest Service. Elimination of land-acquisition funds at the Forest Service would hamper the administration’s ability to open and expand access to public lands, including the nearly 400K acres of landlocked public lands that the Forest Service oversees.

Given that 93 percent of the West’s 9.52 million acres of landlocked public lands are administered by the BLM, the agency carries some of the greatest land acquisition needs. But not only is there no budget for the BLM to strategically acquire lands, the Trump proposal would rescind $10 million from funds already appropriated for FY19. See TRCP’s report with onX that outlines total landlocked acres by agency.

The president’s budget also seeks to cut $9 billion from the USDA’s voluntary conservation programs for private lands, just months after Congress passed a 2018 Farm Bill that strongly supported investments in habitat and walk-in access.

The TRCP opposes these proposed cuts and urges Congress to provide full funding for these important programs during the appropriations process.

Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Not Even a Wash for Wetlands

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that manages national wildlife refuges, protects endangered species, manages waterfowl and other migratory birds, and enforces federal wildlife laws, would see a $267-million overall budget cut—that’s 16 percent less than FY19 funding levels. However, a $21.5-million increase for the National Wildlife Refuge System could help address ongoing maintenance shortfalls as refuges expand hunting and fishing opportunities.

There was also a suggested 7-percent cut to North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds, which go toward wetland restoration projects around the nation. Because every federal dollar is matched as many as three times over by non-federal dollars, cuts to grant programs like NAWCA have an outsized negative impact on the ground.

Water Safeguards

The president’s budget proposes a 31-percent overall cut for the EPA, with deep slices into restoration programs in the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes. Both regional programs would be knocked down to just 10 percent of what they received in FY19, further jeopardizing clean water and fish habitat in watersheds that already face steep challenges. Every other geographic program at EPA—including one in the Puget Sound that helps build fish passages, increase salmon habitat, and protect shorelines—would be eliminated under this budget proposal.

The proposal zeroes out a grant program the states administer to control runoff carrying pollutants like fertilizer, sediment, and chemicals to our rivers and streams. This means that while the EPA is rolling back Clean Water Act protections for wetlands and streams that are being polluted directly, it would be providing states with fewer resources to address pollution from nonpoint sources, as well. The narrative for this section of the budget proposal explicitly touts how the rollback of Clean Water Act protections will streamline permitting, since fewer polluting activities will need permits.

Trump’s proposal also includes a 70-percent cut to WaterSMART Grants, the Bureau of Reclamation’s premier program for funding activities that conserve and recycle water in the West while also benefiting fish and wildlife habitat.

And from too little water to too much: There would be a 31-percent cut to Army Corps of Engineers funding, which is disappointing at a time when flooding has begun earlier than expected throughout the Mississippi River Basin, Tennessee River Valley, and in other major watersheds. Waterway management, natural infrastructure, and coastal habitat restoration couldn’t be more critical.

Image courtesy of Take Me Fishing.
Recreational Fishing and Our Coasts

There is no additional money in this budget for Everglades restoration, which is critical to the future of coastal estuaries and fisheries in South Florida. And the budget proposal eliminates the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, which has helped to stabilize and improve the condition of salmon and steelhead stocks from California to Alaska.

However, there is a positive provision for water management and wetland restoration projects that could benefit recreational fishing and habitat. Trump’s proposal would allow local sponsors to use federal dollars to build water management projects and rebuild wetlands without being mired in bureaucracy at the Army Corps of Engineers.

The proposal also suggests reforms to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to help invest in improvements. In places like the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and other man-made canals, the inability of the Corps to properly maintain the canal banks or dredge has led to wetland destruction, saltwater intrusion, and loss of recreational access. Receiving additional funding would help better maintain these waterways.

The Takeaway

Because Congress still holds the power of the pursestrings, the TRCP will continue to send the message to lawmakers that we will not stand for an endless chipping away at conservation funding. If you want to get involved, sign up for our updates here.

 

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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