In a concerning development, Yellowstone National Park officials have confirmed the first case of a rare and fatal ailment, often termed ‘zombie’ deer disease, within the park’s boundaries. The disease, scientifically known as chronic wasting disease (CWD), was identified in an adult mule deer found near Yellowstone Lake. The deer, part of a Cody, Wyoming, population study, had been monitored via GPS since March. Officials noted its death occurred around mid-October.
Chronic wasting disease affects members of the deer family, including deer, elk, reindeer, and moose. It has been detected across North America, as well as in Norway and South Korea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe CWD as a prion disease – a rare progressive neurodegenerative disorder primarily affecting brain proteins. Symptoms may take over a year to manifest, and in some cases, affected animals may perish before exhibiting any signs.
This insidious disease attacks the central nervous system, leading to symptoms such as weight loss, reluctance to move, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination, drooping ears, and ultimately, death. Despite its severity, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department highlights that many animals appear outwardly healthy even when infected. Transmission is believed to occur through bodily fluids, waste, and potentially contaminated feed or pasture. Currently, no effective cure exists for chronic wasting disease. The National Park Service, acknowledging the gravity of the situation, is intensifying monitoring efforts and sample testing.
They plan to collaborate with various agencies to pinpoint high-risk areas and are revising their surveillance strategy, last updated in 2021, with completion aimed for the following year. Although no cases of CWD transmission to humans have been reported, concerns persist. Research indicates potential risks to monkeys consuming meat from infected animals. The World Health Organization has advised since 1997 against allowing prion diseases into the human food chain. Ongoing studies aim to assess the risk to people, particularly those more likely to encounter infected wildlife.