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Chronic wasting disease—Research by the U.S. Geological Survey and partners

November 20, 2019

Introduction

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is the only transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a class of invariably fatal neurodegenerative mammalian diseases associated with a misfolded cellular prion protein found in wild free-ranging animals. Because it has a long incubation period, affected animals in Cervidae (the deer family; referred to as “cervids”) may not show signs of disease for several years. While signs are not specific to CWD, affected cervids (deer, elk, moose, and reindeer) show changes in appearance (such as progressive weight loss) and changes in behavior such as stumbling, tremors, and teeth grinding. CWD can be transmitted by direct contact or through a contaminated environment. The causative prion agent is highly resistant to degradation.

In recent decades, CWD has transitioned from a novel, obscure prion disease of cervids with limited geographical distribution, to a disease that poses substantial ecological, agricultural, and economic risks across large regions of North America. Since its discovery in free-ranging elk and deer populations in the western United States in the 1980s, CWD has been reported in captive or free-ranging cervid populations in 26 States, 3 Canadian Provinces, the Republic of South Korea, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. In addition, the proportion of CWD-infected animals is increasing in many areas where the disease is already established. In some heavily affected areas, total cervid numbers have decreased over time due to CWD, which suggests that these cervid populations may not be sustainable in the long-term.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducts wildlife disease surveillance and research to support management of CWD-affected species and their habitats. The scientific information is relevant to governmental agencies that manage wildlife and their habitats including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other Federal, State, and Tribal agencies as well as conservation partners (non-governmental organizations, businesses, and private landowners). Each project description in this report (1–30) includes the non-USGS collaborators (Federal, State, Tribal agencies, universities) and a USGS point of contact (principal investigator). If there are USGS publications associated with the project, a publication list is provided at the end of each project description.