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CWD problem showing no signs of going away

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At least for the moment, West Virginia's chronic wasting disease problem appears to be staying put.

Sixteen more Eastern Panhandle deer tested positive last fall for the rogue protein that causes CWD, but none of the 16 was killed outside the area known to contain the disease.

Jim Crum, deer project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, said all of the deer that tested positive were killed by hunters during the state's buck firearm season.

"We collected [tissue] samples from 672 deer in Hampshire and Hardy counties, and from those we got the 16 positives," he said. "None of the animals that tested positive were showing any symptoms of the disease. They were carrying the abnormal [protein], but they weren't sick."

By plotting the kill locations of all the CWD-positive deer they encounter, DNR biologists have been able to determine how prevalent the disease is and how widely it is distributed.

The prevalence hasn't changed a lot, but the disease has become slightly more widespread every year since 2005, when the first case was discovered near Slanesville.

"We have had movement out from the Slanesville area, but we haven't had any big jumps," Crum said.

When a deer tests positive, Crum and his colleagues draw a one-mile-radius circle around it on a map. By totaling up the areas of all the circles, they calculate the total area where the disease has been confirmed present.

"That area has increased a little bit every year, but so far the increases have been slight," Crum said.

This year's sample size was smaller than usual. A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, which had funded a sizable chunk of the state's CWD research, ran out in September. Crum said DNR officials had no choice but to cut back their sampling efforts.

"In past years, we had sampled 1,100 to 1,200 hunter-killed animals every year," he said. "It takes $30 to test each sample, and that doesn't include our expense in manning the game-checking stations and collecting the samples. It's expensive. Without that grant, we couldn't afford to run as many samples as we usually do."

The grant's expiration also affected the DNR's ability to collect additional samples in the spring.

"Usually we send out teams of sharpshooters and, with landowners' permission, shoot a number of additional deer for sampling. We won't be able to do that this year," Crum said.

The spring samples will be missed because they gave biologists an idea of how widely distributed the disease had become among females.

"Almost all of the hunter-killed samples were bucks, and to balance the sampling effort we had to go out and collect those samples for ourselves," Crum explained. "Without the grant, we can only afford to do that once every five years."

Even without the grant, though, Crum said DNR personnel would continue to collect samples from road-killed deer throughout the state, just as they have been doing since 2002, and just as they were doing when they found the first CWD case in 2005.

"We have to maintain that sampling to make sure [the disease] doesn't turn up somewhere else in the state," he said. "All of our district [wildlife biologists and game managers] have county quotas. They pick up road kills, take samples and get them tested. We plan to continue doing that so that if an animal tests positive, we can set up a containment area just as we've done in Hampshire and Hardy counties."


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