‘Zombie deer’ disease, first detected in Idaho 2 years ago, spreads to McCall area

Roger Phillips/Idaho Fish and Game

A highly contagious, fatal disease that was first detected in Idaho deer in 2021 has spread to a new part of the state, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials announced Wednesday.

A mule deer killed by a hunter in Game Management Unit 32A near McCall tested positive for chronic wasting disease, a neurological condition that affects members of the deer family. Previously the disease has only been detected in animals in Unit 14 near Riggins, where Fish and Game has conducted vigorous testing in the past two years to determine how widespread and prevalent chronic wasting disease is.

The illness is a prion disease in the same family as mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Sometimes referred to as “zombie deer disease,” chronic wasting disease is caused by malformed proteins that build up in the brain, leading to malnutrition, neurological issues and bizarre behavior.

Fish and Game officials are asking hunters that harvest deer or elk in Units 32A, 22-24 and 32 to have their animals tested for chronic wasting disease. Testing is done by bringing the head of the animal to a Fish and Game regional office or by submitting the animal’s lymph nodes for testing. The Fish and Game website has instructions on how to remove lymph nodes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people not to eat any part of an animal that tests positive for chronic wasting disease. Fish and Game encourages hunters to exercise caution, including using gloves when processing harvested animals, avoiding handling animals that appear to be sick and having animals tested for chronic wasting disease if they’re harvested in an area where the disease has been found.

Fish and Game asked the public to report roadkill deer or elk along the U.S. 95 route between Riggins and Weiser to the Nampa regional office at (208) 465-8465 or the McCall regional office at (208) 634-8137. People should also report any unusual behavior from deer or elk in the area.

The agency said this is the first chronic wasting disease case confirmed during the fall hunting season, though Fish and Game will receive test results from additional animals for several more weeks.

Fish and Game Director Jim Fredericks said in a Wednesday news release that the agency will take a different tack on managing chronic wasting disease in the Unit 32A area because deer there tend to migrate out of the unit in late fall.