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A plan has been approved to kill perhaps hundreds of deer in area of Idaho County, with the goal of stopping the spread of chronic wasting disease

Feb. 14, 2023 Updated Wed., Feb. 15, 2023 at 7:58 p.m.

A white-tailed deer buck surveys the area.   (IDFG/courtesy)
A white-tailed deer buck surveys the area. (IDFG/courtesy)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – The Idaho Fish and Game Commission approved a chronic wasting disease mitigation plan Feb. 9 that could result in the lethal removal of dozens to hundreds of deer in the Slate Creek drainage of Idaho County.

Testing of mostly hunter-killed animals last fall indicates about 10% of the deer in a relatively small area have the fatal neurological illness that is sometimes called zombie deer disease. But the ailment appears to be contained within the drainage that is south of White Bird and north of Riggins.

To prevent its spread, the agency will issue kill permits to local landowners in and around Slate Creek and work with sharpshooters from the federal Wildlife Services agency to kill as many deer as possible. The objective is to lower the density of deer in the area.

“We have an opportunity here because it is so concentrated – it’s a hot spot – to really keep those densities down,” said J.J. Teare, supervisor of the agency’s Clearwater Region at Lewiston. “We can’t get rid of CWD, but we can reduce the potential for spread outside of Slate Creek.”

The zombie moniker comes in part from the unnatural behavior of infected deer as the disease erodes their brain function. But it also applies to the cause of the disease – misfolded proteins known as prions. Those prions, which are shed by infected animals, persist on the landscape for several years and, since they aren’t alive, they can’t be killed. Researchers believe most deer become infected by contact with sick animals. But they can also be infected by contact with prions in the environment.

While it is similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, CWD has never been documented to infect people. Even so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against eating the meat of deer that are known to be infected.

The culling operation was slated to begin Monday. Fish and Game officials have coordinated with local landowners, several of whom have granted them access to their property. About 53% of the 36,200-acre control area that is hemmed in by John Day and McKenzie creeks is on private land and the rest is on land managed by the federal government. Teare estimated there are 200 wintering mule deer and maybe 250 white-tail deer in the area.

Bait stations will be used to attract the deer. Each animal killed will be tested.

“Any carcasses that get negative test results will be processed and the meat will be donated locally,” said Rick Ward, Fish and Game’s wildlife manager at Boise. “For carcasses that have CWD tests that come back positive, those carcasses will be disposed of in dumpsters that are going to a CWD prion approved landfill in Montana.”

The disease is present in 29 states and three Canadian provinces. It was detected in Slate Creek during fall 2021 and has not been found elsewhere in the state. It infects deer, elk and moose. One elk, in nearby White Bird Creek, tested positive for the disease in 2021. It is the only Idaho elk known to be infected and is the only CWD-infected animal found outside of Slate Creek.

According to data gathered in other states, Teare said, elk are less susceptible to CWD than deer. He also said the cow elk that tested positive had survived a collision with a car and had other health problems that may have compromised her immune system.

Ward said elk will generally be hazed away from the bait stations, but the agency plans to remove six to 10 to further sample for the disease.

“If we do get a positive in an elk, that kind of changes the picture and we will reassess the situation,” Ward said.

The kill permits run through March and the cull operation will continue as long as it remains effective. Teare said deer will begin to disperse as winter weather fades.

The cull program does not include a way for hunters to participate. Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, called the plan a necessary response to an unfortunate circumstance. While hunters and landowners might not like it, he said many of them will understand the objective.

“It’s fair to just recognize there is no good way out of this situation,” he said. “Perhaps if our goal is to mitigate CWD impacts, we lean toward, ‘Let’s do the thing that is hard to swallow in a smaller area so we don’t have to do it in a bigger area.’ ”

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