The battle against CWD takes another interesting turn.
In what was probably only a matter of time, researchers announced the discovery of chronic wasting disease in deer semen for the first time ever in January 2020.
CWD is an always-fatal neurological disorder spread by prions. The disease affects deer and other members of the cervid family like moose and elk. It often mistakenly compared to a "zombie disease" because of how it makes deer lose their natural fear of humans. Infected animals can often look sickly and emaciated in the late stages of the disease right before they die.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the discovery by the Houston-based University of Texas Health Science Center was made while testing semen from animals that came from captive deer facilities in Wisconsin. This included both facilities that were disease free and ones that held CWD-positive animals. Their findings were reported in the scientific journal Plos One.
In the past, Wisconsin wildlife authorities have euthanized hundreds of animals from such facilities when CWD-positive deer were discovered. In the case of one deer farm, two whitetail deer bucks spent as much as five months on the loose after escaping such a facility, possibly interacting with wild animals before they were shot.
The study does caution that more testing will need to be done to see if transmission of CWD is possible through the semen.
"Our findings reveal the presence of CWD prions in semen and sexual tissues of prion infected WTD bucks," the study's abstract reads. "Future studies will be necessary to determine whether sexual contact and or/artificial inseminations are plausible means of CWD transmission in susceptible animal species."
Previously, wildlife authorities and scientists have determined the disease can jump from deer to deer if they have close face-to-face contact, meaning a deer comes into contact with infected saliva from another animal.
As a result, many CWD-positive states have taken to outlawing deer baiting and feeding because it often concentrates wild animals close together in a small area. But scientists studying CWD cases across North America also believe the prion disease can potentially leech out of an infected animal's carcass.
The prions can then spend years in the soil before infecting another animal.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that right now, there are no CWD-related regulations regarding deer semen or reproductive tissues in the United States.
And, the USDA said this news wouldn't reflect any policy change for now.
However, if further study does find disease transmission can happen through semen, it could potentially hurt deer farmers who often see big business through the sale of In vitro straws of buck semen.
In many ways, the captive cervid industry often parallels what horse breeders do for winners of the Kentucky Derby. Larger bucks often carry a bigger premium for a single straw.
It will also be interesting to see if this news changes CWD detection procedures and laws at state levels. It isn't just farmers who are affected by CWD. Many deer hunters are also immediately subject to mandatory checks, testing and specialty carcass transport and disposal rules as soon as an infected deer is discovered in the area.
In recent years, some state agencies have placed major restrictions or have outlawed altogether the use of deer urine attractant scents. This came after news the disease could potentially spread to wild deer herds through such attractants.
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