Deer cull in Slate Creek area aims to curb spread of CWD in Idaho; so far, tests show 12 percent infection rate
Mon., March 6, 2023
Idaho Fish and Game biologist Iver Hull, left, prepares a deer carcass to be skinned Monday at Slate Creek Ranger Station in White Bird, Idaho. Iver and his team are testing culled deer for chronic wasting disease, a contagious and fatal neurological disease that has been found in 12% of the deer population in the Slate Creek area south of White Bird. (Photos by Austin Johnson/Lewiston Tribune)
SLATE CREEK, Idaho – The deer carcasses come in more slowly now, two to three at a time.
But in Week 3 of an effort to dramatically reduce deer numbers in this tiny pocket of Hunting Unit 14 near White Bird, Idaho Fish and Game workers have developed an efficient routine.
A recently killed mule deer buck is lifted from the bed of a pickup truck and placed on a hoist. Biologist Iver Hull makes a few deft cuts around its neck to begin the skinning process. A winch, pulling at the deer’s hide and aided by a few more cuts from Hull, makes quick work of what can be a tedious job.
The carcass is transferred to a table where a team of workers, knives ready, dress the carcass. Hull extracts the lymph nodes that will be tested to determine if the animal was infected with chronic wasting disease, a devastating illness that has ravaged deer numbers across the country.
“Here’s the salivary gland. Right below that sits the lymph node,” he said. “It has a little bit of a harder texture. It almost feels like a marble.”
Prions, the misfolded proteins that cause the disease, concentrate in the nodes, as well as brain and spinal tissue.
Other workers, like recently retired conservation supervisor Mark Carson, quickly process the meat. They remove the back straps, then the front and hind quarters. The meat is tagged and hung on a fence to air cool. The carcass, including the guts, is placed in a dumpster.
“The way we’re doing it is each rung of the fence is a separate animal, so we never get them confused,” Hull said. “Then they’re bagged and frozen together. We have a freezer over here, and it goes on up to Grangeville to the meat locker each night. And then, yeah, we wait for results.”
The meat from animals that test negative will be given to local food banks. As of Wednesday, the agency had received 164 test results and about 12% of those were positive.
During the first week of the operation, about 150 deer were killed. Since then, approximately 140 more deer and three elk were removed.
It’s a job none of them wants to do. But if the grim work is successful, the terrible disease will be corralled within a small footprint and the rest of the state’s deer, elk and moose herds will stand a better chance of escaping its debilitating effects. Chronic wasting disease attacks the brain and central nervous system. Infected animals become disoriented and sometimes spin in circles before dying.
All the while, they shed prions. Animals most commonly contract the disease by direct contact with other animals, but the prions can persist on the landscape for years. So deer, elk and moose can get it simply by grazing.
George Fisher, conservation supervisor for the agency’s Clearwater Region, calls the lower end of Slate Creek and the nearby Nut Basin the hot zone. The cull, in his words, is an attempt to stuff the genie back in the bottle.
“We are usually in the business of protecting, perpetuating and propagating deer and here, you know, we’re having to thin out the nose-to-nose contact with them,” he said. “It’s tough on us, tough on landowners, tough on the deer. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s the right thing to do.”
He notes the disease is 100% fatal. If the agency does nothing, it will spread.
“We don’t want it to get into Grangeville, we don’t want it to get into Salmon, Idaho, or Coeur d’Alene or Boise or Pocatello. It’s crazy how much these animals move.”
Most of all, Fischer hopes to keep it from infecting the state’s elk herds. As much as people love deer, he notes, they are even more passionate about elk.
“If it got into our elk, it would be crazy.”
Thus far, only one elk has tested positive for CWD. That was in White Bird Creek about a year ago, and the animal had other health problems including epizootic hemorrhagic disease, hoof rot disease and injuries from a collision with a car.
Fischer and others from the agency have worked with landowners in the Slate Creek area. While not all of them are on board, several have granted the agency permission to remove deer from their property. Agents from the federal Wildlife Services Agency are doing the killing. Deer are drawn into predetermined areas with bait and then shot.
“We’ve got some very cooperative landowners, they’re very conservation minded. They’re avid hunters and avid deer lovers,” Fischer said. “If it wasn’t for the great landowners we have here in a focused area, we couldn’t do it.”
That includes people like Shane and Sandi Paul, who live on about 50 acres at the lower end of Slate Creek. They are hunters, but consider the deer that winter on their place as pets of sorts and love to watch them. They’ve seen some of the zombie-like animals infected with CWD.
“We had one in our carport. She kind of turned inside out,” Sandi Paul said. “They just have no fear and are very lethargic. You can tell they are sick.”
When people like Fischer approached them for permission to use their property, they were reluctant. Shane Paul said they studied up on the illness and eventually determined the department’s deer culling strategy was the best answer to a problem that has no good answers.
“I think it’s our best option to stop it in this drainage,” he said. “I hope that is what happens.”
They initially gave the department permission to kill just a few deer on their property.
“I said, ‘Let’s proceed slowly and see where we are at with the infection rate,’ ” Sandi Paul said.
With initial results indicating 12% of the deer in the area have the disease, they are likely to allow more animals to be taken from their place.
Fischer said the ability to funnel disease-free deer to food banks is one positive. He calls it making lemonade out of lemons. Jeff Schroeder, with Idaho Hunters Feeding the Hungry, is hoping to help in that effort.
“This is a difficult thing for Fish and Game to do, but they are looking out for the animals,” he said. “I hate to see them wasted in today’s world with the economy and everything else. It’s very needed in Idaho’s rural communities.”
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