Michigan confirms state's first case of chronic wasting disease in free-ranging white-tailed deer

Contact: Ed Golder (DNR), 517-284-5815 or Heather Throne (MDARD), 517-284-5725
Agency: Natural Resources

May 26, 2015

The Michigan departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) today confirmed that a free-ranging deer in Meridian Township (Ingham County) has tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), a fatal neurological disease that affects white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. This is the first time the disease has been found in Michigan’s free-ranging deer population. In 2008 a white-tailed deer from a privately owned cervid (POC) facility in Kent County tested positive for CWD.

The animal was observed last month wandering around a Meridian Township residence and showing signs of illness. The homeowner contacted the Meridian Township Police Department, who then sent an officer to euthanize the animal. The deer was collected by a DNR wildlife biologist and delivered for initial testing to the DNR Wildlife Disease Laboratory at the Michigan State University Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health in Lansing, Michigan. After initial tests were positive, samples were forwarded to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for final confirmation. The Michigan DNR received that positive confirmation last week.

To date, there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease presents any risk to non-cervids, including humans, either through contact with an infected animal or from handling contaminated venison. However, as a precaution, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization recommend that infected animals not be consumed as food by either humans or domestic animals.

“This is the first case of chronic wasting disease to be confirmed in a free-ranging Michigan white-tailed deer,” said DNR Director Keith Creagh.

“While it is a disappointing day for Michigan, the good news is that we are armed with a thoughtfully crafted response plan,” Creagh said. “We are working with other wildlife experts at the local, regional, state and federal level, using every available resource, to determine the extent of this disease, respond appropriately to limit further transmission, and ultimately eradicate the disease in Michigan if possible.”

The confirmed positive finding triggers several actions in the state’s surveillance and response plan for chronic wasting disease. The plan was developed in 2002 through cooperation between the DNR and MDARD, and was updated in 2012. Actions the DNR will take include:

  1. Completing a population survey in the area where the CWD-positive deer was found. 
  1. Establishing a Core CWD Area consisting of Alaiedon, Delhi, Lansing, Meridian, Wheatfield and Williamstown townships in Ingham County; Bath and DeWitt townships in Clinton County; and Woodhull Township in Shiawassee County. Unlimited antlerless deer hunting licenses will be available. Mandatory checking of deer will be required in this area during hunting seasons and restrictions will apply to the movement of carcasses and parts of deer taken in this area.
  1. Creating a CWD Management Zone, which will include Clinton, Ingham and Shiawassee counties.
  1. Implementing a deer and elk feeding and baiting ban, which will include the Core CWD Area and the larger three-county CWD Management Zone.
  1. Prohibiting the possession or salvage of deer killed by collision with a motor vehicle within the Core CWD Area. Also, residents are asked to call in the locations of road-killed deer within this area so DNR staff can pick up for testing. Research shows CWD-infected deer are more likely to be hit by vehicles because of their illness.

DNR Director Creagh will issue an interim order approving immediate implementation of these actions.

“MDARD is working with the state’s privately owned cervid facilities within a 15-mile surveillance zone to ensure compliance with CWD testing requirements,” said MDARD State Veterinarian James Averill. “For POC facilities located outside of the surveillance zone, there will be no impact. We are, however, encouraging all POCs to continue to be our partners in the state’s CWD testing program.”

Chronic wasting disease first was identified in 1967 as a clinical disease in captive mule deer at the Colorado Division of Wildlife Foothills Wildlife Research Facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. Since then, most CWD cases have occurred in western states, but in the past 15 years it has spread to some midwestern and eastern states.

The disease is caused by the transmission of infectious, self-multiplying proteins (prions) contained in saliva and other body fluids of infected animals. Susceptible animals can acquire CWD by direct exposure to these fluids or from environments contaminated with these fluids or the carcass of a diseased animal. Once contaminated, research shows that soil can remain a source of infection for long periods of time, making CWD a particularly difficult disease to eradicate. 

Some chronically CWD-infected animals will display abnormal behaviors, progressive weight loss and physical debilitation. There is no cure; once a deer is infected with CWD, it will die.

Although this is the first positive CWD finding in the state’s free-ranging deer population, it is important to note that from Jan. 1, 1998, through Dec. 31, 2014, tens of thousands of free-ranging Michigan deer were tested and no evidence was found of chronic wasting disease in this population. In fact, that testing included 34,207 deer, 1,607 elk and 70 moose – a large sample of animals with no positive finding. In privately owned deer populations, approximately 21,000 samples have to date been tested for CWD. All of those have been negative as well, with the exception of the 2008 Kent County case. MDARD conducts ongoing surveillance of Michigan’s 365 registered, privately owned cervid facilities.

Public awareness, support

“Strong public awareness and cooperation from residents and hunters are critical for a rapid response to evaluate any deer suspected of having chronic wasting disease,” said Steve Schmitt, veterinarian-in-charge at the DNR Wildlife Disease Lab. “We’d like to thank the resident who called local authorities, as well as the Meridian Township Police Department for its swift response.”

The DNR asks help from the public and hunters in reporting deer that are:

  • Unusually thin.
  • Exhibiting unusual behavior (for example, acting tame around humans and allowing someone to approach).

To report a suspicious-looking deer, call the DNR Wildlife Disease Lab at 517-336-5030 or fill out and submit the online observation report found on the DNR website.

To report road-kills found in the Core CWD Area call the Wildlife Disease Hotline at 517-614-9602 during office hours. Leave a voicemail with location information and staff will attempt to pick up carcasses on the next open business day.

Additionally, Schmitt said hunters will play a key role in helping the state manage this new wildlife challenge.

“Michigan has a long tradition of hunter support and conservation ethics. Now, with the CWD finding, that support is needed more than ever,” Schmitt said. “Historically, areas where chronic wasting disease has been found have experienced a decline in hunter numbers. Because hunters are often familiar with the deer herd locally, one of the best things they can do to help manage this disease is to continue hunting and bring their deer to check stations this season.”

Once the DNR has conducted targeted surveillance in the CWD Management Zone, staff will have a better understanding of needed changes in hunting regulations for upcoming deer hunting seasons.

Despite the CWD finding, Schmitt said there is reason for optimism.

“When it comes to chronic wasting disease, Michigan isn’t alone. A total of 23 states and two Canadian provinces have found CWD in either free-ranging or privately owned cervids, or both,” he said. “Michigan will take full advantage of the collective expertise and experience of those who have for years now dealt with chronic wasting disease on a daily basis.”

Get more information on CWD – including Michigan’s CWD surveillance and response plan, FAQs and a link to the CWD Alliance website where more photos and video are available – at www.michigan.gov/cwd

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state’s natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to www.michigan.gov/dnr.