An infectious disease has plagued deer across the country, leaving the animals with holes in their brains and emaciated bodies.
It’s called chronic wasting disease (CWD,) and it leaves dying animals with a zombie-like appearance in their final days.
The disease has never been found in New Jersey. But it is spreading in the United States — so far having been documented in 26 states including New York and Pennsylvania — and that has state officials and hunters worried about the future of deer in the Garden State.
CWD was first identified in Colorado in the 1960s in a herd of captive mule deer. The disease, which is related to mad-cow disease, affects deer as well as other members of the Cervid family like elk and moose.
Carole Stanko, the head of New Jersey’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, said that a deer can be sick with the disease for two years without showing any symptoms. During that time, the disease eats holes in the animal’s brain. Physical symptoms — which Stanko described as emaciation and a generally depressed appearance — start to show as the disease reaches its final stages.
Those symptoms have led to the disease’s “zombie” monicker, though scientists like Stanko and hunters feel that that description does a disservice to the severity of the problem.
“It kind of makes it into a joke, but it’s really not,” said Cody McLaughlin, a spokesman for the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance. “This keeps hunters up at night.”
There is no evidence that CWD can be contracted by humans, according to Stanko.
According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, as of last August the state had tested nearly 7,500 deer for CWD since 1997. No sign of the disease has yet been found in New Jersey.
But the disease is not so far away. Deer with CWD have been found in Pennsylvania and New York, according to Stanko, though New York has not had a case since 2005 and is currently considered CWD free.
McLaughlin said that hunters worry about the potential devastation of New Jersey’s deer population if the disease makes it to the Garden State.
“I’ve heard horror stories from friends out west and in the midwest where it decimates the herd,” McLaughlin said.
New Jersey banned the importation of live deer and other cervids in 2002. But that’s not the only step that the state has taken to prevent the spread of CWD, Stanko said. New Jersey has also issued advisories for hunters to be careful about the deer they harvest in other states.
“Just bring the meat back and don’t bring anything else back [to New Jersey],” Stanko said. “That should keep us safe.”
Stanko said that the state continues to explore options for strengthening CDW prevention measures. One step that may be coming: A ban on hunters bringing whole deer carcasses into New Jersey from other states.
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