A small herd of deer feed on the grounds of Spruce Cone Cabins and Campground, in Pittsburg, New Hampshire. Credit: Jim Cole | AP

For more than 20 years, deer biologists across the Northeast have kept a wary eye to the west as chronic wasting disease was found in deer in several states. Late this summer, the disease was found in a single deer at a Quebec deer farm just north of Montreal, again raising the threat that the disease might show up here in Maine for the first time.

“Prior to the detection in Quebec, we’ve been more focused on monitoring [the situation] here in Maine and making sure we would find it if it did crop up here in Maine,” said Nathan Bieber, the deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “But now that it’s popped up in Quebec we’re more concerned with response rather than just monitoring.”

Bieber said the wildlife department is considering appropriate responses should the disease make its way to Maine, but stressed that the disease has not been found here. It has not been found in New Hampshire or Vermont, either, but a few cases were identified in New York state more than a decade ago; wildlife officials in that state say the disease was eradicated and has not been found in the deer herd since.

Chronic wasting disease is spread by a protein called a prion. It’s similar to mad cow disease in cattle, scrapies in sheep and Jakob-Creutzfeldt Disease in humans.

“It’s 100 percent fatal for deer. We can’t cure it. We can’t vaccinate against it. If a deer gets it, it will die from it,” Bieber said.

Maine’s wildlife department has a page on its website devoted to chronic wasting disease and its prevention. Among the rules in place: Maine prohibits the transportation of unprocessed deer carcasses into the state from other states that are not immediately adjacent to Maine. That rule also states that carcasses from New Hampshire and some Canadian provinces — including Quebec — are exempt from the rule.

Bieber said an effort to remove Quebec from the list of exempt provinces is under way.

[New England biologists seek to prevent arrival of deer disease]

Judy Camuso, the department’s wildlife director, said the commissioner’s advisory council will be addressing the matter Thursday.

“The advisory council meets tomorrow to review the emergency proposal. This is not a standard meeting,” Camuso said Wednesday morning. “This is a meeting to move forward with the emergency rule on the importation of whole [deer] carcasses.”

Bieber said 450 to 500 hunter-killed deer are tested for chronic wasting disease in Maine each year. Most of those tests are conducted on deer that were shot near existing deer farms or in areas with large deer wintering areas that would tend to attract a high density of the animals.

Deer contract the disease by making contact with urine, saliva or feces of infected deer. One big problem: The prions that carry the disease can remain infectious for decades. In addition, it’s now thought that plants can absorb the prions and deer can contract chronic wasting disease by ingesting those plants.

Bieber said an outbreak in Maine could significantly impact the state’s deer herd and would likely make hunters less likely to head afield to target deer.

And he had a couple of recommendations for hunters as they head out this year.

First, he said he’d urge hunters to reconsider using urine-based lures. Many states have outlawed their use, although Maine is not one of them. But there are other options.

“We do not recommend that people use them given that they could pose some risk and there are synthetic alternatives,” Bieber said. “If you are going to use one, we would recommend that you hang it well above the ground so deer can’t come into direct contact with it.”

And he said hunters should be alert to possible signs of infection in the deer that they see.

“If you see a deer that is exhibiting the symptoms associated with CWD, such as being emaciated, or having a drooping head, maybe it’s listless or it’s salivating or grinding its teeth, that should definitely get your notice as a hunter, and I would definitely like to know about it,” Bieber said.

To contact Bieber about chronic wasting disease concerns, send email to Nathan.R.Bieber@maine.gov.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...