Montana state officials are organizing a hunt meant to assess how widespread a fatal disease has affected the state’s south-central deer population, Wyoming’s Caspar Star Tribune reports.
Chronic Wasting Disease, caused by deformed proteins called prions, was first documented 50 years ago in 1967 and has since appeared in two dozen states. The disease attacks the mule deer’s nervous system, causing the animal to lose weight and awareness until it dies after a span of months, according to The New York Times.
“They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease,” Dr. Mark D. Zabel, a Colorado State University immunologist and Chronic Wasting Disease expert, told TheNYT.
A hand-selected group of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) officials will take part in the hunt. Some of the hunt’s details still need to be finalized, such as how many deer are needed for a valid sample and the hunt’s boundaries of the hunt. A proposal is expected to be presented at a Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting Dec. 7, the Casper Star Tribune reports.
“It’s a tight window,” FWP Region 5 Supervisor Barb Beck, who is leading the state’s study of the disease, told the Casper Star Tribune. “But things are coming together.”
“It will be a milestone for how the commission handles this issue,” she added. Though the disease has been monitored for decades, the Montana hunt will be the first time this tactic has been tried to assess the problem.
Zabel has suggested the only way to beat the disease is to purify the environment through fire. After an infected animal passes through an area, Prions carrying the disease can stay in the environment for years and infect other deer passing through.
“We found [prions] in urine, in saliva and in feces,” Zabel told TheNYT. “If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward.”
Zabel, along with a team of other researchers, is working on testing his theory with controlled burns on federal land in Arkansas and Colorado.
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