ESF : Goodwill hunting: Research group chases down deer to track movements, prevent spread of disease

Two years ago, five captive deer and two wild deer were discovered to be infected with a deadly disease – Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

Luckily for the deer, four doctoral candidates at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry wrote a proposal four months earlier with specific interest in studying animal behavior to control disease movement, said Amy Dechen, one of the doctoral candidates involved in the department of environmental and forest biology’s CWD project.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) contacted ESF to conduct a study on the matter because of the ‘good wildlife and natural resources program,’ said Dave Riehlman, DEC wildlife biologist. ‘We wanted to know what to do to contain and better understand deer movement.’

CWD is a rare disease that affects deer, moose and elk and is believed to be caused by abnormal protein that eventually builds up in an animal’s brain and spinal chord, altering its behavior and causing it to ‘waste away,’ said David Williams, a doctoral candidate who analyzes the project’s data.

Animals usually carry the bug for a year or more before they show signs of infection, which ‘makes studying the disease difficult,’ Williams said.

Although other diseases similar to CWD, such as Mad Cow Disease, which can be transferred to humans, there is no evidence that CWD could do the same. The disease can be spread to other animals through saliva, feces, urine and animal carcasses. Remnants of the disease can survive in the soil for about three to five years, Williams said.

‘We are looking at home range size and location, dispersal distances, how they interact with roads and waterways and other barriers,’ Dechen said. ‘We are also looking at seasonal migration.’

The study will provide a model for the DEC to focus its efforts and resources on preventing the disease. When CWD cases arose in the past, the state spread its resources evenly across a large area or dealt with the situation by shooting deer whose infectious statuses were unknown, Williams said.

‘Deer in the state of New York are a pretty major industry as far of the hunting industry and the economy around that,’ Williams said. ‘Concerns about the disease and a healthy deer population make it an important issue for the state.’

However, hunting has limited some of the data in the study because seven out of eight male deer in last year’s study were shot, Dechen said.

Yet Williams said it is not a huge problem, and Dechen agreed, despite last year’s setback.

‘We don’t really have any movement data close to hunting season,’ Dechen said.

‘Hunters don’t know that they are killing deer with collars on,’ said John Potter of CNY Hunt, a hunting group. ‘They probably don’t know this study is going on.’

When the study started, the team captured animals using a number of different trapping devices, anesthetized them, took blood samples, metrics and tonsil biopsy samples – only live animal test for CWD – to ensure that none of the animals with GPS collars tested positive for the disease.

The collars take the animals’ GPS location every five hours for a year, giving the team an enormous amount of data to analyze, Dechen said.

‘Tracking only one animal used to be very labor intensive,’ said Riehlman, who believes the study is more accurate using the GPS system.

Although the study is not finished and the team is reluctant to make observations, so far research has shown that home range size is a lot smaller than is commonly reported in animal migration literature.

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