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Naturally Speaking: CWD and Deer – Why Should I Care?

Imagine there existed a disease for which there is no cure, there is no immunity towards
it, and it is always fatal. Except this disease doesn’t kill right away,
rather individuals that are infected with this disease can seemingly live a normal life
for a couple years before they ultimately succumb to it. But all the while they have this disease they
are contagious; infecting others both directly and indirectly. Pretty scary, right? Alright, you can stop imagining now and you
can stop imagining because that disease is real, it exists today. Fortunately what I’m talking about isn’t known
to impact humans, what I’m talking about is a disease that affects the central nervous
system of members of the deer family, like deer, elk and moose. And what I referring to is something called
Cronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, and everything I previously mentioned about this imaginary
disease is true for CWD. There is no cure, there is no immunity, and
it is always fatal. Now in the later stages of the disease the
animals look like this – they are a shell of what they used to be. What this image doesn’t show though, is the
behavior of that animal. This girl has no idea of where she is supposed
to be, what she is doing, or what she should be afraid of, it has basically turned her
into a zombie. And like a zombie what causes CWD can’t be
killed because its not alive. You see CWD is caused by something called
a prion. And a prion in this sense is a mutated protein
and these prions are very different than a bacteria or a virus, things you would normally
associate an illness or a disease with. You see bacteria and viruses have nucleic
acids, they are living organisms, they have a life span. Prions don’t have a life span because they
don’t have a life. So once these prions enter the body of the
animal they accumulate and they multiply and they attack the brain. This is an image of a brain tissue of an animal
that has CWD, and you see those white circles there? Those white circles aren’t supposed to be
there. Those are holes that have been bored into
the brain by these prions. And as you can imagine, once you get enough
of these accumulating your neurological function is going to be severely compromised. Now what is interesting about this disease
is how it is transmitted, you see infected individuals transmit these prions in body
fluids; these prions have been found in saliva. So it is easy to see how a deer – which is
a very social animal living in small family groups, sharing common food sources, grooming
each other – how one individual, infected individual, can pass it on to another. But the real part of this disease that is
so insidious is that these prions are also shed in urine and feces and once that material
degrades the prions remain. And they bind to the soil and they get taken
up into the plants and there they stay for years, even decades, waiting until another
animal comes along and picks it up. So in that regard it is possible for one animal
to infect another animal and they never even lived in the same time period together. And as you can imagine the more of these animals
that have this disease, the more these prions are being shed into the environment, where
it is accumulating. And more and more animals are become
infected and they are getting infected at a younger age. And we don’t know where this is going, but
it certainly sounds pretty grim. Now at this point you’re probably asking yourself
a question, or maybe two, this doesn’t impact humans so why should I care about deer? Well I’ll tell you why I care about deer;
you see to me deer are more than just an animal, they are a connection with my past. Some of my fondest memories of growing up
in southern Pennsylvania are getting up early when it is still dark and going out hunting
with my dad, my grandfather, meeting family and friends. You see in Pennsylvania growing up deer hunting
is a tradition, we talk about it all year long, not just when the leaves turn red or
gold in the fall. And the answer to your other question is no,
you don’t have to wear quite that much orange when you go hunting in Pennsylvania. But you know what, I don’t think I’m the only
one that cares about deer, in fact I know I’m not. Did you know that 80% of all hunters in the
U.S. today hunt deer? That’s about 10 million hunters and those
10 million hunters have a pretty significant impact on the economy. Their money touches processors, taxidermists,
retail stores, gas stations, hotels, motels, restaurants, you name it. In fact a recent survey estimated that deer
hunters alone have an estimated multiplied impact of $40 billion each year to the U.S.
economy. That’s more than the revenue brought
in by some pretty major companies last year. I’ll tell you one other little secret about
deer hunting: the money derived from deer hunting license sales and some of the taxes
from deer hunting equipment go to support the management of other species. In that regards deer hunting is to conservation
what college football is to college athletic departments. You see, no money from college football, no
money for lacrosse, or field hockey, women’s softball. No money from deer you don’t have nearly as
much money for turkey, rabbits, grouse. So they are kinda a big deal. Which is why this disease is so concerning,
to me as a biologist, you see we know a lot more about CWD now than we did 10 years ago
but we have a long way to go. And we are learning from states that have
been dealing with this for much longer. We’re learning of this from states such as
Wyoming; Wyoming has been dealing with this for nearly 4 decades. What we are learning about deer in Wyoming
is that CWD is having a 19% annual impact on survival in their South Converse Unit. Now granted some of this area is some of the
highest known infection rate in free ranging deer in the world. One out of every two deer is infected with
CWD. Their population has been decreased by 1/2
over the past decade. We are learning about this from states such
as Wisconsin; Wisconsin first identified this in 2001 and today they have more positive
counties in Wisconsin with CWD than not and areas in and around their core area, Iowa
and Dane counties, are seeing prevalence rates of up to, and exceeding, 40% of adult bucks. So it is spreading and it is growing. Now I previously mentioned that CWD has no
known impact to humans and that is great news because there is a lot of people looking and
they have not found that definitive link yet. But still the World Health Organization and
the Center for Disease Control recommend you don’t consume a deer that has CWD. That’s probably because of the family of diseases
that CWD is in, you see CWD is part of a family of diseases called Transmissible Spongiform
Encephalopathies. And you may have heard of another disease
in that family, it is called Mad Cow Disease. And back in the 1990’s officials in the U.K.
recommended that it was fine to eat beef that may have Mad Cow because there was no known
link. And there are about 200 people that can’t
argue that claim and that is because they died from eating that meat. Now I can’t stress this enough, there is no
know impact of CWD in humans, but I ask you this: Is absence of proof, proof of absence? In this case let’s hope so because I don’t
want to know what’s going to happen to this deer population if they find that link. So unfortunately there are a lot of people
who tend to minimize the impact of CWD because they don’t see the results right away. But looking at other states that have been
dealing with this for years it’s clear something is happening, long term, and we need to be
proactive and combative with this disease. If you are a hunter I would ask you to continue
hunting, especially in areas with CWD. You are the first line of defense. But get your deer checked, not only does it
help your state agency understand the spread and scope of the disease but it is also a
good safeguard for your family. But really if anybody is listening, I would
ask you to contact your state agencies, contact your legislators, ask them for more money
be allocated toward fighting this disease, toward preventing the establishment of this
disease or the introduction of this disease. In doing so you are taking a step forward
for the future of deer, for future generations to enjoy these deer – like this guy – and
for conservation as a whole and for that I thank you. (clapping)

About Bill McCormick

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