Scientists are raising alarms over the discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), nicknamed “zombie deer” disease, in new regions across North America. CWD causes deer and elk to dramatically lose weight and bodily control before inevitably proving fatal. Now detected in Yellowstone National Park for the first time, experts warnrising CWD rates likely foreshadow a “slow-moving disaster” that may one day jump to humans.
First CWD Case Found in Yellowstone Deer As Infection Rates Surge Across US
The first ever case of zombie deer disease in Yellowstone was confirmed last week in a mule deer. While just one case so far, scientists believe it indicates a much larger problem, as CWD rates have skyrocketed in recent years across US wildlife populations:
- Over 40% of some deer herds in Wyoming now infected
- At least 33 states reported CWD in freeranging deer, elk or moose last year
80% of some Wisconsin deer herds test positive
- 10,000+ CWD cases reported nationwide in 2022
CWD has spread steadily east and west since first discovered in Colorado in 1967. Transmission occurs through bodily fluids and waste material. With an incubation period over 16 months, infected animals appear physically normal for over a year before showing symptoms.
Table 1: Statistics on Rising CWD Infection Rates
|% of Deer Infected
|Cases in 2022
Yellowstone’s first case hints at a much larger problem, as their deer herds have minimal interaction with known infected populations. Scientists theorize CWD traces back over a decade to Montana’s Yellowstone Gateway region.
Zombie Deer Disease Could Ravage Ecosystems and Economy
Nicknamed for the symptoms it causes deer and elk, zombie deer disease represents what experts call a “slow-moving disaster” from both an ecological and economic perspective.
As CWD emerges in new regions, scientists expect infection rates to spike even higher in the coming years. Deer hunting draws $20-30 billion annually across the US, with wildlife tourism representing over $100 billion. Experts warn CWD threatening deer and elk populations may decimate ecosystems and local economies:
“It has very serious ecological implications…[CWD] could spread to every corner of North America and be disastrous for deer and elk populations.” – Wildlife Biologist
With no known cure or vaccine for deer and elk, scientists are exploring options like depopulation or genetic editing to control CWD spread. However, experts say we likely face dramatic declines in deer and elk herds across much of North America before solutions can be implemented.
Concerns Rise Over Deer Disease Jumping to Humans
While there is no evidence yet of CWD transmission from deer to humans, the disease belongs to the same prion family responsible for Mad Cow Disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans – both fatal brain conditions.
With rising CWD rates, scientists warn it may only be a matter of time before the disease evolves and jumps species:
“It would be irresponsible and naïve for us to think it’s not going to happen here. We have to get ahead of this now while there might still be time.” – Wildlife official
The CDC advises hunters take precautions handling deer carcasses as scientists study potential CWD risks to humans. Possible exposure routes include consuming infected meat or contact with bodily fluids through the eyes, nose or mouth.
Wildlife Officials Respond with Targeted Culls
With over 47% of deer testing CWD positive at Kerr Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Texas, state officials moved forward with depopulating the herd through extended hunting permits allowing does and bucks of all ages to be taken. Wildlife managers defend the extreme action as necessary to control the disease’s spread to surrounding regions.
CWD was first detected in Texas deer 5 years ago and has since spread to over 30 counties. While controversial, targeted culls have proven effective slowing infection rates in some states. However, officials caution that deer likely migrate outside management zones faster than the disease can be contained.
Global Risks Remain Unknown
Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Norway and Chile have imposed strict import bans on deer products from North America out of concern over chronic wasting disease risks. However, experts note that prior to detection in new regions, CWD transmission likely occurs silently for over a decade. The global risks remain unknown.
Next Steps: Widespread Testing, Vaccine Research
Early detection represents the best strategy to slow further spread. Wildlife officials across more states plan to roll out expanded CWD testing programs in 2023. However, the costs often exceed state wildlife budgets.
While culling provides a temporary fix, experts note we cannot depopulate our way out of this crisis long-term given the vast wild spaces involved. Scientists are urgently researching vaccines or gene therapies to protect deer and elk populations.
“We’re working as fast as we can to get up on top of this disease…but it feels like no matter what we do, it’s one step ahead.” – State wildlife vet
Treatments remain years away from viability even in best case scenarios. In the meantime, officials expect infection rates to increase exponentially across North America. While potential impacts to humans remain unknown, the threat to our deer herds and local economies appears imminent without rapid intervention.
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