Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington redoubling detection efforts for zombie deer disease

Ed Mace, left, chats with Nate Beine and Hannah Duncan at a hunter check station Saturday near Deer Park.  (Eli Francovich/The Spokesman-Review)

Washington wildlife managers are increasing how often they will be testing for a deadly neurological disease found in deer and elk.

Starting on July 1, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will be accepting and testing for chronic wasting disease from deer and elk throughout Northeast Washington (Region 1). At the same time, WDFW has also started collecting and testing samples from road-killed animals that are being salvaged under the state’s road kill salvage law.

That effort is building on WDFW’s surveillance work from the fall. For the first time in a decade, the agency ran CWD check stations during the modern deer hunting season. WDFW biologists hoped to collect 1,200 samples from that effort, but only ended up collecting 400. All of those samples tested negative for CWD.

“Honestly, it was a pilot year. It was a learning curve for everyone,” said Melia DeVivo, an ungulate research scientist with WDFW. “Not only for our agency but also the public. Also, just for hunters to learn that we have check stations.”

DeVivo said collected enough samples to reach a 95% confidence level that they would have detected CWD if it were present in 4% of the ungulate population in Game Management Units 105, 108, 111, 117, 124 and 127.

CWD was first documented in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1967. It’s a debilitating neurological disease that kills deer and elk, similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. There is no known cure. Infected animals will, among other things, stumble, drool, show no fear of people and lose weight, thus earning it the moniker “zombie deer disease.” While some research indicates CWD can jump to other species, including primates, there has never been a human case of CWD.

The disease is spread via “abnormally formed proteins” known as prions. CWD has a long incubation period, meaning seemingly healthy animals may be infected, and prions spread to the soil via deer or elk scat, urine and saliva can remain infectious for years.

That’s part of the reason WDFW is expanding surveillance efforts, DeVivo said. If the disease does spread to Washington, the agency hopes to catch the spread as fast as possible before it’s had a chance to spread widely.

With the confirmation of CWD in Idaho in 2021, it has now spread to at least 27 states and two Canadian providences. In 2019, it was confirmed in white-tail deer near Libby, Montana, just miles from the Idaho border. CWD can decimate wild ungulate populations. According to a University of Wyoming study, CWD can kill up to 19% of a population annually.

CWD has not been detected in Washington. In 2021, the Washington Legislature allocated the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife $465,000 for CWD surveillance and monitoring.