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NMSU Wildlife Society providing professional experience

The fall is the time of year where hunters take aim and begin their hunting season. However, there is something far more deadly to a deer than a hunter: chronic wasting disease. Members of the Wildlife Society student chapter at New Mexico State University are committed to a world where humans and animals co-exist by ensuring that disease does not spread.

Kerry Mower demonstrating how to dissect
Kerry Mower from New Mexico Game and Fish demonstrates the process of checking deer and elk for chronic wasting disease to NMSU Wildlife Society members. (NMSU photo by Samuel Horstman)

Chronic wasting disease, similar to mad cow disease, is a contagious neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose. It causes a spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals, resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death.

The NMSU Wildlife Society currently has a $5,000 contract with New Mexico Game and Fish to test tissue samples of deer and elk for chronic wasting disease. Students go out for about 20 weekends to conduct testing on deer and elk for chronic wasting disease.

"The students gain valuable skills with tools such as scalpels, scissors and cutting on dead animals," said Thomas Lubenau, NMSU student and NMSU Wildlife Society president. "They also gain knowledge about the diseases in New Mexico and in general."

The NMSU Wildlife Society is in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology under the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and is an organization for aspiring conservationists, biologists and educators who wish to work in the field of wildlife and the environmental sciences.

"Students are mainly camping out when they are out in the mountains," said Wiebke Boeing, NMSU associate professor in the department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology. "There is a mobile lab where the students get all the materials for the testing. An experienced student can probably conduct the testing in about 10 minutes. We have several students who have done this a dozen times."

Boeing is also the faculty adviser for the NMSU Wildlife Society student chapter. The NMSU Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology also offers a major in wildlife science.

Students in the society run and conduct the testing stations throughout the weekend in the Sacramento Mountains. Tissue and lymph node samples are taken from the animals and tested for the disease, if the hunter volunteers to do so.

"Some of the deer have tested positive," Boeing said. "Once the deer has been examined and tested positive they alert the hunter. There are no known cases of the disease being transmitted to humans. However, hunters are still discouraged to eat the part of the deer where chronic wasting disease is known to occur."

"These stations also help to clarify some of the regulations that can prevent the spread of the disease through dumped animal parts," Lubenau said.

When chronic wasting disease has been found in an area used by a hunter, New Mexico Game and Fish makes sure hunters are fully aware. Lubenau added that hunters are supposed to leave the spinal column and brain parts of the deer and elk in the unit to prevent spreading.

In order to prepare for chronic wasting disease testing, students are given training by personnel from New Mexico Game and Fish during their regular monthly meeting. Students begin testing the deer and elk for chronic wasting disease in September and continue on until December.

"The students like it," Boeing said. "It's a win-win situation. They get money for their student chapter and they also get the professional experience doing this. Most importantly they make professional contacts with personal from New Mexico Game and Fish."

In March, members of the Wildlife Society were awarded "Best of the West" at the 2013 Western Regional Student Conclave. The team competed with students from wildlife programs at 14 Western U.S. universities.

For more information on the NMSU Wildlife Society student chapter contact Boeing at 575-646-1707.