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State agency details confirmation of first case of Chronic Wasting Disease case in Ky. deer

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Joe Lacefield

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources announced Thursday that the Commonwealth’s first documented case of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) had been confirmed in a deer.

According to an agency release, two independent test types were run on tissue collected from a 2 ½-year-old male white-tailed deer harvested in Ballard County in November. Each confirmed the presence of the abnormal proteins that cause the fatal neurologic disease, which can affect deer, elk and other related species.

KDFWR brought together experts and spokespeople Friday to further detail the case, and the steps the agency will take moving forward to prevent the spread of the disease.

Deputy Commissioner Gabe Jenkins said that he feels confident in the agency’s CWD Response plan, which was first developed more than 20 years ago.

“We've practiced, we're prepared for it,” Jenkins said. “I think that we will make sound decisions moving forward and hopefully do the very best we can to moderate our herds because they're very valuable to us, and they're a huge economic impact to the state of Kentucky and a blessing for us all.”

Biologists collected tissue samples from the deer – which was harvested on the first day of modern gun deer season – as a part of ongoing surveillance efforts to guard against the disease. Preliminary tests were then conducted at Murray State University’s Breathitt Veterinary Center, where the Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) test identified a sample as a suspect positive. In following the CWD Response Plan, the agency then sent back-up samples to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa for an expedited Immunohistochemistry test, which also confirmed the results of the preliminary tests.

Jenkins said that the agency is sticking to the CWD Response Plan in December and monitoring testing results before issuing further guidance.

“We're really just kind of going to gauge what the science tells us. We know we have this deer and we have collected thousands of samples that are still pending across the state,” Jenkins said. “So we're just going to kind of sit back and see what we find … and then make some recommendations for 2024.”

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

Hunters can help with early detection of CWD

Christine Casey, a state wildlife veterinarian, said that early detection is critical to slowing the spread of CWD – which can be transmitted through direct contact between animals such as shared body fluids or from plants and soil in a contaminated area.

Visible symptoms of CWD in deer can include loss of coordination, droopy head or ears, lack of fear of humans, excessive drooling and rapid weight loss. But, because of the disease’s 16-month incubation period, Casey explained that infected deer can transmit the disease despite not showing symptoms.

“So the thing about this disease and what makes it kind of so insidious is it takes a long time for deer to actually develop symptoms,” she said. “An animal can be on the landscape and look completely healthy [for almost a year and a half], but be infected. That's what's so important about our hunter harvest surveillance, because those are early detections.”

Muzzleloader deer hunting season continues in Kentucky through Dec. 17. Hunters can help Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s statewide monitoring efforts by donating the heads of legally harvested and telechecked deer for CWD testing and aging at check stations around the state. There is no cost to hunters and results can be found online.

The agency also asks that hunters report any deer that appear to be sick but do not have an obvious injury via the department’s sick deer online reporting form.

There is no conclusive evidence that CWD can be transmitted to people, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people don’t eat meat from animals that test positive for CWD. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife also advises against eating the meat from game animals that appear sick or in poor condition.

The Tennessee Lookout reported earlier this year that a former biologist with the state’s Wildlife and Resources Agency had filed a lawsuit alleging officials with the agency had misled the public about the rate of neurological disorder in deer. In the suit, the biologist claims that officials “failed to follow best scientific practices and its own regulations in diagnosing potentially infected deer” and that there had only ever been two detected cases of the disease in the state.

A growing threat

CWD was discovered in Colorado more than 50 years ago, and has since spread to more than half the states in the U.S. – including every state that borders Kentucky barring Indiana.

KDFWR developed its plan to combat the disease after the first case was detected east of the Mississippi River more than two decades ago, enhancing it as the scientific understanding of CWD has evolved.

The department activated the plan initially in September 2021, after it was announced that a case had been identified in a deer harvested in northwestern Tennessee, not far from the state’s shared border with Kentucky.

Following that activation, a CWD Surveillance Zone was established in Calloway, Marshall, Graves, Fulton and Hickman counties. Special regulations remain in place for those counties, though a case has not been detected in samples collected at CWD check stations in the zone. Ballard County is adjacent to that initial surveillance zone.

The case detected in Ballard County was a result of routine surveillance around the state.

Since 2002, the department has tested more than 40,000 deer and elk from across the state for CWD from all 120 counties. Just over 1,300 samples were collected at check stations in western Kentucky this November. So far 84% of those western Kentucky samples – and 35.6% of statewide samples for the month – have been processed.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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