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Initial sampling of chronic wasting disease in north Arkansas is finished, and while the news is bad, it's not doom.

When news broke in late February that an elk killed in Newton County tested positive for CWD, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission hoped for two things. First, that it discovered the disease early and the prevalence rate would be low. Second, it hoped the disease would be confined to a small area in Newton County near the Buffalo River.

None of those wishes came true. The prevalence rate exceeds 23 percent among white-tailed deer in a sample area that covered 125,000 acres. That is very high, and it strongly suggests the disease has been present in that part of the Ozarks for at least 10 years.

Naturally, people want to know whether the Game and Fish Commission unwittingly introduced the disease in the 1980s when it released elk from Colorado into the Buffalo River area.

Maybe.

It's also possible that a hunter might have killed an infected animal from another state, processed it under a tree or a work shed in Newton County, then dumped the carcass in the woods or a creek.

How CWD got here is irrelevant at this point. If it came in with the elk, all the rage in the world won't reverse it. Every person involved with the elk reintroduction has retired or died, so nobody from that era is around to be held accountable.

Eradicating the elk herd won't change anything. CWD is here to stay, and for what it's worth, the prevalence rate of CWD among Arkansas elk appears to be a lot lower than among deer.

Hunters all over the state now want to know whether CWD is in their area, and will it get south of the Arkansas River?

Maybe.

Hunters can forestall and maybe even prevent it by acting responsibly if they kill a deer or elk in north Arkansas. The fastest and most efficient way for CWD to colonize new areas is to be transported in by hunters.

AGFC Chief of Wildlife Management Brad Carner said Wednesday that his staff is really worried about CWD reaching Benton, Washington and Madison counties. Many hunters in those counties hunt in the Buffalo River area, and they've had at least 10 years to transport CWD-infected carcasses to new areas. Once it hits a high-density human population such as Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers-Bentonville, the potential for exportation increases dramatically.

"A lot of people hunt in eastern Madison County that actually live over there," Carner said. "They've been killing deer and hauling stuff back, so there's a good chance we're going to find it somewhere else."

No matter where you kill it, process the deer or have it processed there. Don't transport it to other counties.

CWD will not annihilate our deer and elk. Steven Beaupre, head of the University of Arkansas biology department, is a nonvoting member of the AGFC, and he is the commission's scientific voice.

He said some animals are genetically resistant to CWD, and that some animals are genetically susceptible to CWD. Normally, natural selection would eliminate the portion of the population that is genetically susceptible.

Complicating this progression is white-tailed deer can carry the CWD prions before they become symptomatic. Many reproduce before CWD kills them, which means they can pass on CWD susceptible genes through multiple generations.

Beaupre said resistant animals might become dominant in the white-tailed population, but only after we pass a critical mass in which a greater percentage of susceptible animals leave the gene pool. That will take many generations, and it will have to repeat in rolling fashion across the landscape as the disease colonizes new areas.

Meanwhile, hunters want to know whether it's safe to eat deer. The Game and Fish Commission advises not to eat any animal that appears to be sick, regardless of the infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there is no known incidence of a human contracting CWD or developing Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease from eating a CWD-infected deer.

The problem is, again, that a deer can have CWD for years without showing symptoms.

In other words, the CDC doesn't know.

Veterinarians in some states will send the heads of hunter-killed deer and elk in for CWD testing. I'm told it costs about $50.

I suspect Arkansas deer hunters would greatly appreciate such a service.

Sports on 04/24/2016

Print Headline: State hunters play big role in controlling CWD

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