(CBS DETROIT) – When chronic wasting disease was first discovered in wild deer in Ingham County in 2015, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and its many partners took action to better understand the neurological disease that is always fatal to deer, moose and elk infected with it.

This coalition of dedicated partners – including Michigan State University, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, the Michigan Legislature and many others – has appropriated significant funding, resources and personnel to research and fight this disease, taking aggressive steps to stop the spread of CWD while emerging as a national leader in disease testing, research and management.

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Last year alone, the DNR tested more than 40,000 deer heads for CWD, about 25 percent of all samples tested in the entire United States. Since testing began, 133 deer in nine Michigan counties have tested positive for the disease. Michigan joins a list of 26 states and three Canadian provinces with confirmed CWD in wild cervid (deer, elk and moose) populations.

Among many other proactive steps taken to fight this disease, Michigan – along with Wisconsin – formed a coalition of state and federal natural resource managers, wildlife biologists, veterinarians and social scientists.

Dr. Russ Mason, the DNR’s executive in residence and adjunct professor at Michigan State University, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is helping to lead this coalition. Before Mason’s recent appointment through MSU, he oversaw the DNR’s CWD efforts as the department’s longtime Wildlife Division chief.

“By working together in our fight against CWD, we are capitalizing on the talents provided by universities and combining resources across the state and federal government,” Mason said. “This will help us move more quickly to identify solutions that will help us manage this unique disease.”

In addition, the MSU-DNR Chronic Wasting Disease Advisory Group was created in 2018 to identify and fund high-priority CWD research and outreach activities. Recognizing the threat that CWD poses to Michigan’s hunting traditions and local economies, the Michigan Legislature provided $4.3 million in funds in 2019 to support these activities as well as to help fund CWD field surveillance.

Funding new research, education efforts

In April, the advisory group issued a national call for proposals to seek collaborative research, education and outreach projects to address the most important issues around wildlife disease in Michigan, especially CWD in deer.

This past summer, 11 projects were selected for funding. Some projects are now underway and expected to last one to two years.

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Project topics include:

– Developing a rapid, in the field CWD screening test.
– Testing two promising decontamination agents to inactivate CWD prions (abnormally folded proteins that cause disease) on different materials with which prions may come into contact.
– Examining how composting of infected deer carcasses could help with the decomposition of prions.
– Creating an engagement process with people living in the core CWD area, culminating in a multiday workshop to develop an education and outreach plan.
– Developing a study to examine how deer hunting regulations influence deer populations affected by the disease.
– Studying CWD prions in the environment.
– Evaluating current analytical tools used for disease surveillance.
– Developing efficient CWD surveillance and management strategies for Michigan and establishing a framework for other states.
– Developing cost-effective techniques to manage genetic data in relation to CWD.
– Hiring a statewide MSU extension educator to create, deliver and evaluate CWD communication and education.
– Offering a multistate CWD strategic planning session.

Already, beneficial results are emerging. The multistate strategic planning initiative project, spearheaded by Dr. Sonja A. Christensen, Boone and Crocket Quantitative Wildlife Center, MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, brought together nearly 50 invited participants representing 14 universities, seven state and federal agencies, the Wildlife Management Institute and CWD Alliance.

“These experts were brought together with the specific objective of creating cross-disciplinary conversation and information sharing,” Mason said. “This first time ever approach was very fruitful and the group will continue to meet so that accomplishments and emerging challenges can be shared.”

Next steps

Over the next year and beyond, the multistate consortium members will continue to work together to address priorities and improve coordination of research efforts and exchange of information.

Based on the consortium’s strategic planning initiative, another request for proposals for additional CWD research and outreach projects is planned for the near future. A portion of the funding appropriated by the Michigan Legislature remains for these additional projects.

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