DNR looks to collect 200 more samples for CWD testing

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

The Iowa DNR launched a special deer hunt in part of Allamakee County Feb. 21 in an effort to collect 200 additional samples from the Harpers Ferry area after three wild deer killed there during the recent hunting season tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The three new “positives” brought the total number of confirmed cases of CWD in wild deer in Iowa to four, after one harvested near Harpers Ferry also tested positive in 2013.

For the hunt, landowners and other individuals will be issued special scientific collection permits at no cost within a 31-section area in Taylor and Fairview Townships, west and northwest of Harpers Ferry. One-third of that area includes the Yellow River State Forest, where the first deer, a male, tested positive. The three new deer—one male and two females—were also harvested within five miles of that spot.

CWD is a neurological disease that primarily affects deer and elk. Caused by an abnormal protein, or prion, that attacks the brain, CWD induces weight loss, abnormal behavior and a loss of bodily functions in infected animals. Symptoms include excessive salivation, thirst and urination; loss of appetite; progressive weight loss; listlessness and drooping ears and head.

Speaking to around 200 people gathered at public meetings in Harpers Ferry and Waukon Feb. 17, DNR officials said they hope the special hunt will help them pinpoint the problem area.

“If we get the number of samples up, it will give us an idea of its prevalence,” said Willie Suchy, DNR Wildlife Research Unit Leader. “If we can get a better picture of what’s on the landscape and find where the spark is, we can get a better idea of what to do.”

Since 2002, the DNR has collected 57,000 samples across Iowa. During the past hunting season, 311 deer harvested within a larger surveillance zone in Allamakee County were tested. Of those, 130 tests came from deer harvested close to the positive tests.

“We still believe we’ve got just a spark,” explained Dr. Dale Garner, DNR Wildlife Bureau Chief, stressing that Iowa’s situation is not as dire as nearby Wisconsin’s, where over 2,800 deer have tested positive for CWD since 2002. “They tried to diminish the population to wipe out what was happening. The only thing they could do was remove deer, but they had a fire. It was on the landscape too long; they didn’t find it soon enough. We hope we caught it soon enough.”

Garner told hunters and landowners they had several options: do nothing or take a proactive approach to figure out where the problem area is.

“We’re here to help you make a plan and manage your resources,” Garner continued, addressing those in Harpers Ferry. “There will be those here who won’t want to do anything because they want to hunt next fall, and that’s fine. But we’re here for the perpetuity of the resource. The choices you make today are going to affect your kids’ and grandkids’ futures.”

Garner said deer are an important aspect of the state’s economy, providing $200 million each year, along with 3,200 jobs.

DNR Wildlife Biologist Terry Haindfield said the turnout and support from locals was encouraging.

“I’m thrilled this many people have a passion for deer,” he said. “We appreciate the attendance and thank the groups and hunters who have provided samples.”

For the special hunt, interested hunters will be assigned permits to hunt within a designated section of the targeted area. Any person taking part must be listed on the scientific collector’s permit. CWD does not show up in tests until deer are at least 18 months old, and is more common in older deer, so hunters are asked to harvest adult deer only. Weapons used in regular deer seasons—bows, muzzleloaders, handguns and shotguns—can be used, as well as center fire rifles that are .24 caliber or larger.

“We want to have it controlled so we know what you’re doing and you know what we’re doing,” Garner said.

Once a deer is harvested, a DNR official will collect the animal’s lymph nodes and brain stem for testing. The disease presents itself earlier in lymph nodes, whereas it is present in the brain stem when CWD is more advanced.

Garner said the hunter can keep the deer to process him/herself or have it processed at a locker. However, the locker will hold the meat until it is determined whether or not the deer has CWD. The DNR can also take the meat and donate it to the Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program if the deer tests negative. They will dispose of the deer in a landfill if it tests positive.

The DNR will collect samples until Sunday, March 15, or whenever the 200 sample-quota is met. Garner said only 50 deer can be harvested from Yellow River State Forest. Once the quota is met, both in the forest and for the entire hunt, hunters who have yet to fill their permits will be notified so no additional deer will be killed.

Garner noted road kills from the area can also be sampled. With the colder weather, samples can still be viable one to weeks after the deer’s death.

As of Sunday night, DNR Information Specialist Joe Wilkinson said 63 scientific collector’s permits had been issued, with 259 participants listed on them. Twenty-nine deer were reported, two of which were fawns and could not be tested.

“We are extremely pleased with the participation and the number of deer sampled just after the first weekend, especially for how brutally cold and windy it was Sunday,” said Haindfield.

Once samples have been collected and sent to the National Veterinary Services Lab at Iowa State University for testing, Garner estimated results would come back one to two weeks later.

“We’ll come back if we find something and see what to do in the fall,” Garner said. “The long-range plan is to continue to sample. Next year, we may not find it, then, three years down the road, we might find another spark.”

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