The National Park Service is planning to hold controlled burns in Arkansas and Colorado to combat a strange disease ravaging deer and elk herds in the United States, The New York Times reports.
The NPS is working with Colorado State University immunologist Mark Zabel. Zabel, who studies “chronic wasting disease” in wildlife, believes fire may be the only way to purify areas infected by the plague, according to The NYT.
“There’s a lot that we still don’t know and don’t understand about the disease,” Zabel told The NYT. “At the end stage … they have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease.”
The disease is caused by deformed proteins called prions, similar to “mad cow disease.” Also, it doesn’t require personal contact to spread. Chronic wasting disease proteins can remain in the environment for years, long after an infected animal has passed through or died.
“We view the disease as a serious, long-term threat to the deer population,” Illinois Department of Natural Resources official Doug Dufford told The State Journal-Register (SJR) in December. “It has the potential to literally eliminate deer from wherever it occurs.”
Without a known cure, chronic wasting disease has a 100 percent fatality rate, the Center for Disease Control told SJR.
An infected white-tailed deer population in Wyoming experienced a 10 percent decline in numbers, according to an August study by the University of Wyoming.
“The take-home is: Prevent [chronic wasting disease] from getting into new populations, because once it gets established we really have no way of handling the disease,” graduate student Dave Edmunds told Casper’s Star Tribune.
Deer can live with the disease for 18 months before symptoms begin. During that time, the animals can spread the disease through saliva and feces.
“The landscape becomes radioactive,” Edmunds told the Star Tribune. “That’s what makes it such a nasty and difficult disease to manage.”
Cases of chronic wasting disease have been recorded in 24 states, The NYT reports.
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