‘Zombie Deer Disease’ infects 7 Utah Counties

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah- (ABC4 News) – It’s referred to as “zombie deer disease,” but the actual name is chronic wasting disease, and it’s something that is spreading among different deer herds throughout the state. Hunters have been aware of chronic wasting disease for quite some time, it was first detected in Utah in 2002 near Vernal.

“It’s not something that weighs on my mind, but you do keep an eye out for it and you know how to handle the meat,” Travis Welch, an avid hunter, said.

Nobody wants to eat meat from an animal that’s diseased, it’s why the CDC recommends handling meat with gloves and handling organs of animals only when necessary. The hype on social media about “zombie deer disease” can imply this is a new disease and humans can contract it, but wildlife managers in Utah have been tracking this for years. 

“It’s not new though, it’s been around for a while; in Utah we started to test for it in 1998,” Covy Jones, the Division of Wildlife Big Game Coordinator for the state, said. 

The disease is a nasty one. It’s in the prion family of diseases and attacks an animal’s brain, spinal cord, and tissues. Mule deer are known carriers, and Chronic Wasting disease can spread to moose and elk populations as well.  Currently, there are 24 states that have infected animals, so 241 counties nationwide with CWD numbers on the rise. Since the first detection of the disease in Uintah county in 2002, CWD has spread to six more counties on the eastern and central portion of the state. Right now, the counties also include Carbon, Daggett, Grand, San Juan, Sanpete and Utah. 

“The prions, it’s a protein, it’s a bad protein we will say, it can be spread by contact. That’s either contact of a positive animal with another positive animal or contact with a positive animal with a feed source,” Covy Jones, the Division of Wildlife Big Game Coordinator for the state, said. 

Linked to mad cow disease, the symptoms are heartbreaking. It’s a progressive disease that’s a death sentence for animals who contract it. Symptoms include a super skinny appearance, excessive drooling, droopy ears, stumbling and an overall lack of coordination. The states that lead the country in infected animals include our neighbors, Wyoming and Colorado, both have upwards of 20 counties fighting CWD in its animals. In Utah, the Division of Wildlfie Resources tests for the disease throughout the year. Most of the testing happens during the hunt in the fall, but roadkill is tested throughout the year. To date, there is no strong evidence this disease can occur in people, and the hot spots in Utah are not close to our backyards.

“None of the locations where we have positives are near metropolitan areas. So along the Wasatch Front, those areas minimal concern right now. Even where there are positive effects we haven’t seen effects to any other species. your dog is not at risk,” Covy Jones, the Division of Wildlife Big Game Coordinator for the state, said. 

The Division of Wildlife Resources will also test any venison for free to make sure it’s disease-free. To do so, they would need samples from the animal’s head or lymph nodes. For more information, https://wildlife.utah.gov/diseases/cwd/

To look at other states impacted by chronic wasting disease, the Center For Disease Control tracks the numbers: https://www.cdc.gov/prions/cwd/occurrence.html

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