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South Dakota to have new plan to combat deer brain disease within 5 months

PIERRE, S.D. - New regulations designed to combat the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in South Dakota are tentatively scheduled to be finalized in May.

That, at least, is the plan said Chad Switzer, wildlife program administrator for the state’s Game, Fish and Parks Department. Switzer is heading up the department’s efforts to combat the disease that studies have shown to cause deer populations to shrink.

Some preliminary work, he said, includes contacting the state taxidermy association, working with the state’s Animal Industry Board to update a memorandum of understanding on how to deal with CWD and assembling a stakeholder group which met to discuss the issue for the first time in late November.

The group will meet again in March after the public has had a chance to comment on a draft of the department’s new plan for how to deal with CWD. The plan will posted on the GFP website and opened up to public comments on Feb. 1. The comment period will close on Feb. 22.

During and after the plan’s public comment period, Switzer said, GFP staff will be hosting public meetings on the issue throughout the state.

GFP staff will spend the last week of February updating their plan to include comments and ideas from the public. That process actually will continue until the first week of April when the GFP Commission will meet at the Outdoor Campus-West in Rapid City. The CWD plan will then be formally presented to the Commission for approval.

The April meeting will also see the introduction of any new rules or rule changes department staff think are worth pursuing in order to slow the spread of CWD. Those rules, if the commission accepts them, would then go out for a 30-day public comment period before getting a public hearing and final vote at the GFP Commission’s meeting in May at the Creekside Lodge in Custer State Park.

Chronic Wasting Disease has been in South Dakota for at least 20 years. But it wasn’t until recently that the breadth, scope and danger the disease presents became apparent, Switzer said. In 2016 around 260 elk were killed in the park as an effort to reduce the size of the park’s herd. Each of those animals was tested for CWD and nearly 14 percent of them were found to be infected. That level of prevalence helped open the department’s eyes to the CWD problem, Switzer said.

Also there have been several research papers published over the last three years that have shown that CWD is more prevalent than scientists thought and that the disease is causing infected deer herds to shrink. One study, “Endemic chronic wasting disease causes mule deer population decline in Wyoming," published in October 2017, found that the mule deer herd in Converse County, Wyo., was shrinking at about 21 percent a year, largely due to CWD. Converse County is one county west of the South Dakota state line.

“If I’m a South Dakota elk hunter and I have 20 preference points, I would be concerned about CWD,” Switzer said.

The disease is challenging to fight because it’s not caused by a virus, bacteria or parasite. Instead, it’s caused by a mutated protein called a prion. Proteins are one of the most basic building blocks of organic life and thus are incredibly difficult to destroy. The prions that cause CWD, for example, can’t be destroyed by cooking and can remain in the dirt for years without needing a host.

Unlike diseases such as epizootic hemorrhagic disease which kills deer within days or weeks of infection, CWD doesn’t leave an easy to see trail of bodies on the landscape. That’s because CWD is slow acting, it can take years to kill a deer or elk outright. Also, because CWD affects brain functions, infected deer or elk become more susceptible to natural predation.

Chronic wasting disease has not been found to infect people but officials say it’s not a good idea to eat an obviously sick deer or one that tested positive for CWD.