Biologist: Mad deer disease likely to reach Indiana


So far, Indiana’s deer population has been lucky. It’s avoided chronic wasting disease.

Chronic wasting disease, also known as CWD or mad deer disease, is a prion disease similar to mad cow that can’t be killed with antibiotics or by cooking infected meat. The prions are damaged protein particles that can live for years, as opposed to most bacteria and viruses that live only hours or days. CWD spreads through bodily fluids.

The disease has been found in Indiana’s bordering states, except for Kentucky, but has yet to make the jump into Indiana.

“It just takes time to spread,” said Jeff Thompson, a biologist who covers Dubois County for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Eventually, Thompson said, CWD will likely find its way to Indiana.

Scientists first identified the disease west of the Rocky Mountains prior to 2000. Now, the disease has spread, reaching as far east as New York, south to Texas and north into Canada, according to a map by the U.S. Geological Service’s National Wildlife Health Center. CWD has yet to reach the west coast and southeast regions.

Closer to Indiana, the map shows CWD in wild deer herds in northern Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan and in captive herds in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. The captive herds in Michigan and Ohio where CWD was identified were depopulated, which means killed, as were several in Wisconsin, but not all.

CWD attacks the brains of affected animals, causing emaciation, abnormal behaviors and eventually death, according to the Illinois DNR website. The disease progresses slowly, so infected deer may not show signs of the disease until 18 months or more after infection. Signs of the disease include excessive salivation, loss of appetite, progressive weight loss, excessive thirst and urination, listlessness, teeth grinding, holding the head in a lowered position and drooping ears. Many of these signs can also be symptoms of other diseases.

CWD belongs to the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies family of diseases, the same family as mad cow disease. But unlike with mad cow disease, scientists have found no evidence that CWD can spread to humans or conventional livestock, according to the Illinois DNR website. Still, there is much for scientists to learn about the disease. 

Although CWD hasn’t shown up in Indiana’s deer population, the herds haven’t been disease-free. Epizootic hemorrhagic disease hit the state in 2008, contributing to a statewide herd reduction hunters are still feeling today.

In April, the Dubois County Deer Advisory Council held its first meetings to discuss the state of the local deer herd. The council is part of the pilot program for deer advisory councils in Indiana. The idea for the program originated with Indiana Whitetail Deer Herd Management, a statewide group dedicated to preserving the deer herd and the sport of deer hunting. The councils are meant to help the Indiana Department of Natural Resources localize herd management rather than adopting a single plan for the whole state.

Right now, the councils are focused on providing input to the DNR about the bonus antlerless deer quotas, and the Dubois County advisory council plans to meet again after deer season.

If CWD reaches Indiana, the councils could be a way to get hunters involved in fighting the disease. In Michigan, for example, hunters are integral to fighting CWD because they bring deer they kill to testing stations. According to a Nov. 26 Detroit Free Press article, hunters helped the Michigan DNR test 150 deer in a single county on the first day of gun season.

Biologists across the country test for CWD by removing glands from dead deer and testing for infected prions. Indiana is no different. Thompson said scientists will remove the glands from deer killed in car-deer collisions, those hunters harvest or those that look sickly.

If CWD is found in Indiana, Thompson said wildlife management would try to reduce the population in infected areas in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. Citizens who suspect a deer may have CWD should contact the DNR. Dubois, Pike and Spencer counties are located in District 7, and the contact number is 812-789-9538.

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