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Illinois hunting and fishing

Keeping “sparks” from spreading

February 05, 2011 at 10:01 PM

The State Journal-Register

Like sparks from a fire, chronic wasting disease can show up in new locations far from where researchers have previously found it.

And biologists are trying to learn if these reports are isolated incidents or parts of more established pockets of the disease.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a fatal neurological disease of deer and elk that was first discovered in Boone County near the Wisconsin border in 2002.

More than 250 positive cases have been found in Illinois since then.

“The big unknown is how will the mobility of Midwest deer affect the spread of the disease,” says Paul Shelton, Illinois Department of Natural Resources forest program manager.

“You are not working in a fenced situation,” he says. “You never know when deer are going to pack up and move somewhere else.”

A few CWD positive deer have turned up in LaSalle and Grundy counties, a little further south than the cluster of counties along the Wisconsin border where the disease has been concentrated.

That has scientists concerned.

Biologists are trying to learn more about the ways chronic wasting disease spreads.

“If they are cropping up like sparks from a fireplace, it is going to be very difficult to control and really taxes your resources,” Shelton says. “We hadn’t been seeing that too frequently, and it’s always a downer when you run into something like that.”

Shelton says biologists have learned the risk of transmission is greater within family groups than it is when unrelated deer simply inhabit a certain area. “Focusing on groups like that, I think, gives us a much better tool to fight this disease than simply taking a broad brush approach,” he says.

Shelton says biologists are continuing to work in northern Illinois after the close of hunting seasons to collect additional samples for testing.

“We’ll be testing samples until the end of March,” he says. “At this point in time, we’ve found 25 to 28 positive so far.
“I think the most we’ve ever found in a year was 51.”

Shelton says he thinks the approach Illinois has taken so far has had a controlling influence on slowing the spread of CWD.
“In the areas where we have been working intensely to combat CWD, we have had good success.”

Shelton says biologists are looking hard at the new “spark” areas.

“We are trying to get more samples so we have some level of confidence that we know what is happening on the landscape.”

About chronic wasting disease (CWD):

CWD is a fatal neurological disease affecting deer and elk.

The disease is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion.

Signs of the disease: Deer may become emaciated, display erratic behavior and loss of coordination.

While CWD is related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) or scrapie in sheep, it is a separate disease. There is no evidence CWD can be spread to humans.

CWD may be spread by direct contact between animals or by contamination of the environment through infected dead animals and droppings.

CWD has been found in seven Illinois counties: Winnebago, Boone, McHenry, DeKalb, Ogle, LaSalle and Stephenson.

Source: Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

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