The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is on the lookout for a fatal disease found in deer and elk populations across North America.

The department has set up testing stations, including one near Prineville, where hunters can submit deer and elk carcasses to be tested for chronic wasting disease, a contagious disease found in the central nervous system of some large hoofed mammals. There has never been a case of the disease reported in Oregon, but Greg Jackle, an ODFW wildlife biologist based in Prineville, said the disease can spread easily, and the department isn’t taking chances.

“The moment we start not sampling (deer and elk) at the highest rate, that’s when you miss something,” Jackle said.

Corey Heath, an ODFW wildlife biologist based in Bend, said chronic wasting disease is found in pockets across the continent, from the Mountain West to central Pennsylvania. As of September 2017, there are 181 counties across 21 states with reported cases of the disease in free-ranging deer and elk populations, as well as reported cases in Norway and South Korea, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Colorado, Heath said, the disease can affect more than 10 percent of the elk in a given population.

So far, the disease has yet to make it to the West Coast, but there’s no evidence that Oregon’s deer or elk populations are immune, Heath said. He added that around 72,500 elk live in Oregon east of U.S. Highway 97.

While no one knows precisely how the disease spreads, Heath said it lives in the environment, including in the nervous systems of dead and dying animals, for a longer time than many other diseases. In some cases, the disease can be spread when animal carcasses are transported by people, which can dramatically change the region in which the disease is found, according to Heath.

“It’s not a disease that just occurs when an animal walks across state lines,” he added.

Chronic wasting disease is not treatable, and is always fatal for deer and elk, though Heath said it can sometimes take years to eventually kill the animals.

“It’s a long-term, slow process,” he said.

Jackle added that deer and elk often go to lower elevations when affected by the disease, bringing them closer to roads and putting them at a greater risk of getting hit by a passing car.

While Heath said there’s no evidence that eating meat from animals with chronic wasting disease is harmful to humans, the department has advised people not to eat infected animals. The disease has been shown to infect squirrel monkeys in laboratory tests, as well as laboratory mice that carry some human genes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Because of this, ODFW has made the disease a priority for more than 10 years even without any cases in the state. In addition to testing roadkill, Jackle said ODFW staffers routinely visit hunters and see if they can test deer and elk carcasses. The department set up check stations along the highway — one in Biggs along Interstate 84 and one about one mile east of Prineville on U.S. Highway 26 — on Saturday where hunters are encouraged, though not required, to let staff inspect their deer and elk carcasses. The stations will remain open until Monday, according to Jackle.

When the animals are inspected, Jackle said staffers pull out lymph nodes to determine if the animal was infected. For elk, the department also uses a knife to cut out a portion of the spinal cord to look for the disease. He said the testing typically takes about 10 minutes, and added that the station typically tests around 150 deer and elk per day.

“It’s just a good way for hunters to contribute,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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