University partners with state to fight wildlife malady

Branden Peterson

In late August, Minnesota’s first diagnosed case of chronic wasting disease was detected in a single elk on an Aitkin County farm.

Although only one wasting disease case has been confirmed in the state so far, wildlife officials aren’t taking any chances.

In hopes of swiftly corralling the disease, the University will assist the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in statewide surveillance efforts and laboratory investigations.

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal brain and nervous system malady, transmitted by animal-to-animal contact or through feed or water contaminated with infected animal’s saliva, urine or feces.

Preparing for the state deer hunting season opener Nov. 9, approximately 25 University veterinary medicine students have been recruited by the DNR to join wildlife biologists in the battle against the disease.

Students will be trained in disease diagnosis, surveillance techniques, lab procedures and risk communication before being dispatched throughout the state.

The DNR’s current plans are for hunters to bring their harvests in to one of the 17 testing stations in various Minnesota counties.

In conjunction with the large investigation, more than 150 veterinarians at 98 clinics will be collecting brain stem samples to be sent to the University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in St. Paul.

The Minnesota DNR expects to examine as many as 6,000 deer and elk, but Jim Collins, a professor at the lab, expects his team of scientists to conduct approximately 10,000 examinations during the period.

“We know we can do the test, and we’re probably capable of doing 300 a day, but we want to get to a lot more than that,” Collins said.

Emphasizing how expensive examination machines cost, Collins said the University laboratory is running low on reserve funds.

“That’s the challenge because we’re used to handling a certain number of samples, but not all coming to us at once,” Collins said.

Financial assistance from organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has helped the laboratory purchase several machines, nearly doubling the University’s laboratory.

Chronic wasting disease was first diagnosed in 1967 and is believed to only cause infection in deer and elk.

Collins and a staff of 20 to 30 scientists will test deer and elk brain samples for prions, an abnormal protein thought to cause chronic wasting disease.

The protein is believed to exist in brain cells, tonsils, the spleen, spinal cord and lymph glands. However, the brain- and nerve-damaging prions are yet to be found in muscle meat – leading scientists to believe venison meat remains consumable by humans.

No evidence suggests the disease affects humans. However, ongoing human surveillance in other parts of the country continues.

Symptoms of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk include progressive weight loss, behavioral changes, staggering, consumption of large amounts of water, excessive urination and drooling.

Officials encourage anyone seeing signs of the disease in deer and elk to contact the DNR immediately.

The University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory will only test deer samples sent from veterinarians and testing stations throughout the state. Individual hunters will not be able to test samples by contacting the University directly.

In more than 15 years of working at the University, Collins said he cannot remember preparing for such a large investigation.

“We’ll be as ready as we can be,” he said.


Branden Peterson welcomes comments at [email protected]