Yellowstone Deer Dies of Rare ‘Zombie’ Disease


A deer in Yellowstone National Park was found to have died of a rare, incurable “zombie” disease. It’s the first positive detection of the virus, officially known as “chronic wasting disease” (CWD), to be reported in Yellowstone.

A statement released last week by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) reported that the deceased animal was a mule deer buck fitted with a GPS collar in March as part of a population study. When the collar signaled to officials that the buck had died, they located its body directly in the middle of the South and Southeast arms of Yellowstone Lake. An autopsy was performed, along with “multiple diagnostic tests,” and the results unilaterally confirmed the presence of CWD.

There is no known treatment or vaccine for CWD, which the NPS and WFGD defined as “a contagious, fatal disease of deer, elk, and moose caused by a malformed protein (prion)…The malformed prion protein accumulates in the brain and other tissues causing physiological and behavioral changes, emaciation, and death.”

Symptoms include listlessness and rapid weight loss, as well as “excessive drooling” and a wobbling of the head, which is why it’s often classified as a “zombie” disease. It can be transmitted through infectious particles in soil, plants, and feces.

CWD has persisted across Wyoming since the mid-1980s and is now present in most of the state. Between 10 and 15 percent of deer who migrate into the southeastern portion of Yellowstone during the summer are thought to be infected with CWD. While the long-term effects of the disease on deer, elk, or moose in the area aren’t clear at this time, CWD is not known to travel to humans or domesticated animals.

The NPS and WFGD urge anyone who encounters a dead or sick-looking animal to avoid any contact and call authorities immediately. Hunters should take particular caution, and the NPS advises having all meat tested for CWD. It’s highly inadvisable to consume animals who have been infected.

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