Head Hunting

State tests Southeast Alaska deer, elk for fatal disease

Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2005

Attention Southeast Alaska hunters: State biologists want your severed deer and elk heads.

For the first time, the state is testing deer and elk in Southeast Alaska for chronic wasting disease - a 100 percent fatal syndrome that destroys the animals' brains.

Chronic wasting disease hasn't been found in Alaska deer or elk, but the state Department of Fish and Game has begun a full-blown study in order to determine - with roughly 99 percent certainty - that the state has not been affected yet.

For the last several decades, the disease has "slowly been spreading out" in the Lower 48 and Canada, said Kodiak veterinarian and wildlife biologist Vicki Vanek, who is overseeing the study.

Chronic wasting disease was first detected in deer in Colorado in 1967. Since then, it has killed deer or elk in many western states, as well as the Canadian prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. It has spread as far east as New York.

Fish and Game biologists have been testing Kodiak archipelago deer and elk for two years now and they want to test a minimum of 500 Sitka blacktail deer in Southeast Alaska as well. They also hope to test as many of the elk transplants living on Etolin and Zarembo islands as possible.

Since the project began in Southeast Alaska on Oct. 1, hunters in the Juneau area have turned in at least eight heads to the Fish and Game field office in Douglas.

Last week, Vanek showed Juneau state wildlife biologist, Anne Post, how to collect vital tissue from the animal heads at the Fish and Game lab in Douglas.

"This is the brain stem with a little piece of cerebellum," Vanek said, using a small knife to fish out a soft piece of white tissue from a deer head laid out on a cutting board.

In order to determine whether an animal has contracted the disease, laboratory scientists need to look at a small piece of the brain stem, tonsils and lymph nodes from the back of the throat.

Last week, Vanek showed Post how to collect one set of samples for a Lower 48 laboratory and a second set of samples for future follow-up studies, possibly in Alaska.

Unfortunately, there is no live animal test for chronic wasting disease, Vanek said.

The disease is caused by the little-understood transformation of proteins in the brain. The protein abnormalities, called prions, concentrate in the brain stem.

Chronic wasting disease is part of a group of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies that includes mad cow disease and two human variants of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease.

So far, there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease can jump to humans, though mad cow disease is responsible for at least one of the two variants of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease.

It can take more than a year for symptoms of chronic wasting disease - extreme weight loss, drooling, stumbling and tremors - to appear in deer or elk.

Hunters in areas with chronic wasting disease are encouraged to use guidelines on cleaning, butchering and eating their venison. The main concern is keeping meat from getting contaminated by brain and spinal matter.

If the disease arrived in Alaska, it has the potential to create much greater concern among the public, whether or not it can actually harm humans. It can decimate deer and elk populations. "We depend on our meat so much up here," Vanek said.

It may be difficult for the disease to arrive here by natural means.

According to British Columbia authorities who are testing for chronic wasting disease, significant geographical spatial barriers to animal movement exist between Alberta - where deer or elk are infected - and their own province.

The Rocky Mountains rises like a wall between the front range of Alberta and British Columbia, and by extension, nearly the entire coastline of Southeast Alaska.

Geographic isolation within Alaska could also be a limiting factor to the disease's ability to spread throughout the state, Vanek said.

"Our three main deer populations in Alaska are essentially kept separate because of mountains and water. ... In one way, it's a good thing," Vanek said.

Until a few years ago, deer and other cervids could be imported from the Lower 48. The interstate trade in live and dead cervids was banned in Alaska in 2003 because of possible animal-to-animal transmission of chronic wasting disease.

That's why the study in Alaska began in Kodiak.

Kodiak was ground zero for concern in Alaska because it had imported elk in the past.

"We do have a game farm on our island that had legally brought animals up from the Lower 48 ... our (deer and elk) were considered at highest risk," Vanek said.

Luckily, no diseased animals have been found in the Kodiak archipelago. So far, 524 deer and 24 elk have been tested in the last two years, and testing is continuing, she said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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