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Fatal illness known as ‘zombie deer disease’ confirmed in two Idaho mule deer bucks

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Chronic wasting disease

A whitetail deer shows symptoms of chronic wasting disease in this photo from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

RIGGINS — Two mule deer bucks killed in Idaho County last month have been confirmed to carry a fatal, contagious illness called chronic wasting disease that affects deer, elk and moose, according to a news release from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. It’s the first time chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in Idaho.

Chronic wasting disease, sometimes known as “zombie deer disease,” is an infectious disease that affects the brain and nervous system and is thought to be caused by abnormal proteins called prions. It’s in the same family of diseases as mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Animals can be infected for over a year before they begin to show signs, which include drastic weight loss, increased isolation, lack of awareness and other behavioral changes.

According to Fish and Game, hunters killed the bucks that tested positive in the Slate Creek drainage near Lucile, north of Riggins. The deer were harvested in Hunt Unit 14. Officials said both hunters have been notified that their deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease, and Fish and Game encourages any hunters who harvest deer in Unit 14 to have their deer tested.

Fish and Game spokesperson Roger Phillips said he was not aware of the deer displaying any visible symptoms of the disease.

“The tests done on these two mule deer were part of our regular and ongoing testing for CWD,” Phillips said in an email.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game says hunters should not consume meat that comes from infected animals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it has not confirmed any cases of chronic wasting disease in humans, but says studies have pointed to risks in non-human primates that consume CWD-contaminated meat or come in contact with contaminated animals’ brain or body fluids.

Idaho officials have been monitoring for the disease for years as confirmed cases crept closer to Idaho borders. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in more than half of U.S. states and is particularly prevalent in Wyoming, Colorado and Wisconsin. The agency said the illness is linked with population declines in infected species in some states, where as much as 40% of deer populations are infected with chronic wasting disease.

The fatal illness has also been confirmed in captive cervids, posing a potential problem for farms and privately owned animals.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Nov. 17 to correct Idaho Fish and Game’s recommendation for the consumption of meat from infected animals.

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