What Every Deer Hunter Should Know About Chronic Wasting Disease

With the 2018-19 deer hunting season approaching, chronic wasting disease (CWD) is once again in the news as state and federal agencies struggle to manage this potentially devastating disease.  If you are a deer hunter or interested in deer in North America, you are surely aware of CWD and its spread across the United States and Canada over recent decades; however, with the constant news releases and headlines it can be difficult for deer hunters to keep track of what we can do to help control CWD.  To successfully manage CWD, it is critical that individual hunters understand the disease, current control efforts, and their responsibilities as stewards of our wildlife resources.

Most of you probably know that CWD is caused by abnormal proteins called prions, that it is related to mad cow disease and other transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) and that it appears to be 100 percent fatal in affected animals.  You may also be aware that CWD has been found in free-ranging deer or elk populations in 23 states and three Canadian provinces (as of this writing, along with Norway and South Korea).  Although scientists are just beginning to understand what prions are and how they cause disease, we know that they can transmit disease from infected animals to healthy ones, that they tend to accumulate in the nervous system and lymph node tissues and that they can persist in the environment for extended periods.  Finally, there is no known vaccine or cure for CWD or any TSE.

At this point, most states and provinces have a CWD management plan in place.  These plans and associated regulations vary greatly among agencies but tend to focus on three areas: preventing the spread of CWD into areas or herds where it has not yet been found, reducing prevalence of CWD in populations that are infected and reducing opportunities for human exposure to prions from infected animals.

All states and provinces currently have restrictions on transport of live cervids, carcasses and/or parts across borders.  Regulations vary, but the most common restrictions only allow boned meat, quarters without head or spinal column attached, hides with no head attached, antlers or skull plates with no tissue attached and finished taxidermy specimens.  Be sure to check your state’s regulations regarding legal transport of cervids across state lines to make sure you are compliant this season.

Regulations for controlling prevalence in infected herds may include restrictions on supplemental feeding in affected areas and harvest regulations that target certain age and sex classes (e.g. young males that disperse more often) or that seek to reduce population density (e.g. through increased doe harvest).  They may also include recommendations for carcass disposal.

Finally, most measures to prevent exposure to humans are voluntary for individual hunters.  We should emphasize that no evidence to date has shown that CWD can be transmitted to humans, however,  prudent precautions to reduce the chances of exposure are probably wise.  These are mostly common-sense and focused on reducing exposure to tissues that accumulate prions in infected animals, such as brain, spinal cord, lymph nodes and spleen.

It is clear by now that CWD is not going away and that it has the potential to affect deer populations and deer hunting for the foreseeable future.  As hunters, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to help manage this disease while enjoying our outdoor hunting heritage.  The following are some recommendations for what you, as a hunter, can do to help:

  1. Know and abide by your state or provincial regulations for transport of deer and deer parts both within and among states or provinces. In fact, it makes sense to avoid transporting anything except boned meat, cleaned antlers or skull plates, and taxidermy mounts among states or provinces or from infected areas to uninfected areas within a state or province.
  2. Help your state or provincial agency manage CWD. Provide samples from harvested deer if they are requested. Report sick deer or deer that exhibit odd behaviors typical of CWD (e.g. lack of fear, drooping head, emaciated appearance).
  3. Dispose of carcasses properly by burying them deeply enough to avoid predators or in an approved landfill.
  4. Consider altering your local deer management program to eliminate baiting or supplemental feeding or alter these practices to prevent concentration of deer in one spot (e.g. use food plots or feeders that scatter food more widely).
  5. Take prudent precautions in consuming deer meat. These include not consuming meat from sick deer or deer in poor condition, avoiding consumption or handling (more than necessary) of tissues that accumulate prions and wearing disposable gloves when field dressing or processing deer (especially when handling brain or spinal tissue). If possible, or if you are in an area that has CWD, get your deer tested for CWD before you consume any of it.
  6. Enjoy your deer hunting season! One of the worst possible outcomes from CWD would be the loss of deer hunting as a recreational activity and management tool. If you follow some basic precautions and pay attention to the latest news, there is no reason CWD should interfere with your enjoyment of the wildlife resources in your area.

In addition to information directly from state, provincial and federal agencies, SCI Foundation is a member of the CWD Alliance (www.cwd-info.org), which compiles relevant regulatory information and best practices for effective management of CWD.

By Dr. Chris Comer, SCIF Director of Conservation