Maine’s wildlife and agriculture officials are closely monitoring the state’s white-tailed and domestic deer for signs of an infectious disease that could decimate the herds.

“It’s a huge concern,” said George Smith, head of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

Mark Stadler calls the prion that causes chronic wasting disease “an entity like a rogue protein that’s below the status of a virus.”

Stadler, director of the wildlife division of the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said Maine has stepped up its watch for CWD over the past two years. So far, he adds, there’s been no sign of it here.

That’s not the case three states away. Instances of CWD were found in two private, captive deer herds in Westmoreland in Oneida County in New York in April.

One of those deer was served up at a game dinner to about 250 sportsmen, said Smith. That was before anyone knew it was infected. There’s been no indication that the disease affected any of those who ate the venison.

But, he added, not much time has passed for the bug’s symptoms to develop.

Fearing that CWD, a degenerative brain illness, could spread to New York’s wild deer population, officials there began checking whitetails within a 10-mile radius of the deer farms. It was too late to halt the spread. At least two wild whitetails in Oneida County turned up positive with the malady. One was a yearling in Verona; the other, a 3-year-old doe found about a mile from the first.

Now neighboring Vermont is taking up legislation that would allow that state’s agriculture agency to test all captive deer and elk there. Vermont has about 30 deer and elk farms.

Maine has closer to 70 such farms, said Stadler. But here the Department of Agriculture already has a monitoring and testing program in place. Samples are routinely taken from domestic Sitka and red deer and elk that are slaughtered for consumption, Stadler said, as well as those killed accidentally or that die on farms of natural causes.

And IF&W biologists have been taking samples from whitetails shot by hunters since 1999, when about 300 were tested. It stepped up the program two years ago, with between 700 and 800 samples tested last year. None proved positive for the disease.

CWD is believed to spread by contact between infected animals, Stadler said. And it can move between species, from deer to elk, for example, and possibly to moose, he said.

It first appeared in the West. Until the mid 1990s it was thought to be isolated in a corner of northeastern Colorado. Since then it’s spread to a dozen or more states and two Canadian provinces.

The disease – a relative of mad cow disease and of scrapie in sheep – is incurable and fatal. Deer in advanced stages of CWD have difficulty walking, salivate excessively, droop their ears and head, lose awareness of their surroundings, lose fear of man, and their body weight and condition grows progressively poorer until death.

“We’re quite concerned about it,” said Stadler. “Prevention, that’s the big issue,” he added. “The disease is extremely difficult to destroy.”

If CWD gained a foothold in Maine’s wild whitetail herd, it could be devastating. More than 200,000 people hunt whitetails in the state, making deer Maine’s No. 1 big game animal. A 2001 study by Southwick Associates for the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies found that the economic impact of deer hunting in Maine was more than $160 million.

Stadler said money for the state’s monitoring and testing program for wild deer appears to be adequate. The program gets about $43,000 annually in federal wildlife funding, which pays for biologists’ field time, equipment and testing costs, he said.

Smith encouraged hunters to cooperate with the state’s monitoring program and to be smart about bringing deer products from away into the state.

“It’s essential that we take whatever steps we can to prevent it from coming here,” said Smith. “Whatever needs to be done we’re going to be doing.”

State wildlife and agriculture officials have huddled to discuss ways to prevent the disease “from coming into Maine from domestic or wild sources,” Stadler said.

“Maine is already pretty proactive,” he noted.

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