BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota has documented its first deer death caused by chronic wasting disease and officials are concerned because it happened in an area where the devastating wildlife malady hadn't previously been found.
The further spread of the disease and the discovery of a case in advanced stages increases fears over how much CWD could affect the deer population in a state where hunting is not only a rich tradition, but also a lucrative industry.
Fourteen deer killed by hunters have tested positive since 2009, 13 from a south central hunting unit and one taken last fall in a unit in the state's northwestern corner. But the white-tailed deer found dead and emaciated by a landowner just south of Williston in late February is the first deer known to have died of the disease.
"This is unfortunate news because it means CWD is much farther south than the positive deer harvested this past fall in the northwest corner," Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for the state Game and Fish Department, said Tuesday.
He also said it's likely other deer in the state have died from CWD.
"This animal happened to die in an area where it was highly visible, and the carcass could be recovered in time for testing," he said.
CWD is a fatal disease that strikes the nervous system in deer, elk and moose. Game and Fish plans to kill and test about 30 deer in the hunting unit south of Williston over the next week, according to state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.
"It's an area where there's obviously pretty prime deer habitat and moose habitat," he said. "That's why we're seeking more information, trying to gather more information on what the prevalence is."
It's possible a baiting ban might be implemented in the hunting unit - as it has been in other CWD units - to prevent deer from congregating and spreading the disease. Violations carry a $100 fine.
"In other areas of the country where CWD has reached a tipping point, finding sick or dead CWD-infected deer has become common," Bahnson said. "We need to do everything in our power to ensure that doesn't happen in North Dakota."
Game and Fish already restricts the movement of certain deer parts from CWD units and from nearly two dozen other states where the disease is present. The list includes the neighboring states of South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan to the north. The state also has a surveillance program that collects deer heads voluntarily from hunters for testing.
Any proliferation of chronic wasting disease in North Dakota could hurt a hunting industry worth tens of millions of dollars to the state. Each resident deer hunter spends about 7 days in the field, shelling out an average of about $136 each day. Nonresident hunters average about five days afield and spend $226 daily, according to state Tourism Division data.
No CWD infections have been reported in people, but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hunters have animals tested if they're from areas where the disease is present and not eat meat from infected animals.