Chronic Wasting Disease

Summary

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is an always-fatal, progressive, degenerative neurological disease occurring in farmed and free-ranging deer, elk, and moose that is classified to the family of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Presently, state fish and wildlife agencies are forced to divert funds from other conservation projects to perform surveillance and monitoring of CWD within their jurisdictions. To provide relief for these agencies and to further research into the disease itself, Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus members have introduced the Chronic Wasting Disease Support for States Act (S.2252) and the Chronic Wasting Disease Management Act (H.R.4454). These bills lay out a multi-agency approach to provide additional funding for state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies to assist in the surveillance and monitoring of this disease and to support applied research.

Background

First recognized in 1967 as a clinical ‘wasting’ syndrome among captive mule deer in Colorado, CWD remains a considerable threat to cervid populations across the country. CWD belongs to the family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). TSEs include a number of different diseases affecting animals or humans including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (commonly known as mad cow disease) in cattle, scrapie in sheep and goats, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.  Although CWD shares certain features with other TSEs, it is a distinct disease affecting only deer, elk, and moose.

CWD is a slow and progressive disease with a lengthy incubation period. Because of this, infected deer, elk, and moose may not present visible symptoms of the disease until years after the time of infection. Even as visible symptoms, such as weight loss, stumbling and tremors, become observable, the commonality of these symptoms among cervid maladies, such as epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), prevents CWD from being readily diagnosed. As it currently stands, there is no way to conclusively identify the presence of CWD within an animal until a necropsy has been performed. With no known treatment or vaccine available, CWD continues to prove fatal in all documented cases.

The agent that causes CWD and other TSEs has not been completely characterized. However, the theory supported by most scientists is that TSE diseases are caused by abnormal forms of proteins, known as prions. The exact mechanism of transmission is unclear, although evidence suggests CWD is transmitted directly from one animal to another through bodily fluids and tissues. Further research also indicates that CWD-causing prions can persist in soil for several years, potentially binding to plant life in the area. As the list of means of transmission expands, CWD is of increasing concern for wildlife managers across North America.

Since first identified, CWD has been documented in both wild and captive cervid populations throughout 25 states and two Canadian provinces. Where present, localized infection rates among wild and captive cervids can reach upwards of 25 and 79 percent, respectively. The lack of definitive information regarding CWD, coupled with the disease’s potential to decimate large portions of North America’s cervid population, establishes a critical need for combative action to be taken against CWD. As it currently stands, state fish and wildlife agencies are forced to divert funding from various crucial conservation projects in order to address the threat of CWD. As a result, initiatives to combat CWD are grossly underfunded at the expense of various other conservation efforts.

Recent Activity

Bipartisan bills have been introduced in each house of Congress by Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus Members. Rep. Ron Kind (WI) introduced the Chronic Wasting Disease Management Act (H.R.4454) to the House of Representatives in November of 2017, while Senator Jon Tester (MT) introduced the Chronic Wasting Disease Support for States Act (S.2252) to the Senate in December of 2017. Each bill aims to appropriate $35 million to support state efforts to manage and control CWD. From this, both intend to allocate $20 million to States, $5 million to tribal agencies, and $10 million to be retained for the rapid response fund. Although the bills’ additional appropriations to fund applied research differ, the intent and utility for progress remains consistent between the two. Through multi-agency cooperation between federal land management agencies and state and tribal agencies, these sister bills look to federally fund applied research that will aid with combatting CWD, while allowing for States to retain policy-making authority.

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