Is it just a spark – or the first flicker of what could become a raging forest fire?

The confirmation of the first case of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Iowa’s wild deer herd has biologists, hunters, and other wildlife enthusiasts nervously watching, waiting, testing, and hoping that the neurological disease will not become widespread. The animal was shot in Yellow River State Forest near Harpers Ferry during the first shotgun season in early December 2013.

About 100 people attended recent informational meetings hosted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Monona, Harpers Ferry, and Waukon. Dale Garner, chief of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Bureau, said finding CWD was not necessarily a surprise, given its presence in every state surrounding Iowa.

Since the disease showed up in Wisconsin in 2001, the Iowa DNR has tested about 50,000 deer for CWD. Several animals in captive herds tested positive, but this is the first case from the wild.

Between now and the end of the 2014 fall hunting seasons, the DNR hopes to test another 300 deer in the southeastern part of Allamakee County where the infected deer was found. Garner said the DNR is also asking people to report any road-killed deer or other dead deer, or white-tails that appear sick. The goal is to test 500 deer county-wide, and to continue CWD monitoring elsewhere in the state.

Hunters and others can help reduce the chances of spreading the disease by not putting out feed or salt that might lure concentrations of the animals. CWD can be spread through animal-to-animal contact, as well as through feces, urine, and saliva. Hunters who butcher their own deer should dispose of the carcasses only in a clay-lined landfill, and not dump bones or other deer pieces in the environment, Garner added.

Chronic wasting disease, which was first identified in Colorado in the 1960s, is caused by a prion, which is an abnormal protein. Affected animals in fact seem to waste away. They may lose appetite and weight, have little fear of people, become listless, and show excessive salivation, thirst, and urination. The ears and head may droop.

CWD is an affliction of deer, elk, and moose – but it is similar to mad cow disease and to sheep scrapies. Health officials say there is no evidence that it can be transmitted to humans, but they advise against eating affected animals.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions hunters to wear gloves while field dressing deer, and to not to eat the brain, eyeballs, or spinal cord. It’s also best to bone out meat, avoiding lymph nodes and glands.

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