Why Chronic Wasting Disease Shouldn’t Scare You Away from Deer Hunting

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What CWD States Have You Hunted In?

Don't let CWD keep you away from the deer woods. When opening day comes this fall, be afield to enjoy God's creation. (Shutterstock / Nate Allred photo)

You’d think the sky is falling, the earth is crumbling, and the walking dead have risen with the way people are currently behaving. Recent articles deeming whitetails as “zombie deer,” have the uninformed and easily convinced both confused and scared. Should people allow CWD to scare them away from deer hunting? Absolutely not. Should those same people ignore CWD and carelessly handle CWD-positive deer? No again. The right answer — continue to enjoy deer hunting but handle carcasses with care.

For those unaware, CWD is caused by an abnormal protein referred to as a prion. Prions are neither alive nor dead. You can’t kill it with heat or chemicals. Once contracted, it is an always-fatal disease that thrives in the nervous system of cervids (deer, elk, reindeer and moose). It can be passed on through saliva, urine, feces, spinal and brain fluids, etc. Similar diseases affect other animals such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) which is also referred to as Mad Cow Disease. It’s also found in sheep, known as Scrapie. Interestingly enough, we already know that Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) — a sister disease to BSE and CWD — is capable of infecting humans.

CWD has been found in 26 states. That said, in most of those states, CWD is confined to a very small area within them.

Matt Ross, a QDMA Biologist who’s spent a lot of time dealing with this disease, has great advice for those who hunt in CWD zones.

“Simply be informed if you are indeed hunting in an area with CWD,” Ross said. “And if you are, have any deer you kill tested. Then follow recommendations on carcass transport, disposal, handling, processing and consumption from your state or provincial agency, the CWD Alliance and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

In an age where we’re already losing hunters, we can’t afford to lose more due to sensationalized and unnecessary reasons.

“We need engaged and informed hunters now more than anything,” Ross said. “Hunting is the No. 1 source of mortality for deer. Deer hunting specifically funds conservation more than any other activity and is the primary source of revenue for agencies and the general hunting industry, and deer hunters act as a watch dog toward CWD management in a couple ways. In areas that have discovered CWD in wild deer (or have yet to), hunter harvest will be one of the primary ways that wildlife agencies will monitor the speed at which it spreads both geographically and in prevalence. Often, deer hunters will be there to help keep deer populations at bay to limit its spread even further.”

Nick Pinizzotto, CEO of the National Deer Alliance, feels the same way.

“We need hunters to help monitor and control the disease,” Pinizzotto said. “While hunters may have to deal with new rules and be a little inconvenienced in some cases, it’s still deer hunting and the excitement level shouldn’t be any less.

In areas where CWD is present, what steps should people take to responsibly handle their venison? Is there anything that needs to be done to ensure the diseases isn’t spread? These are the questions we asked Ross.

“Health experts, including with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many state’s Department of Health Services, recommend humans not consume meat from a CWD-positive animal,” Ross said. “For those who kill a deer (any deer, before it is tested) within a CWD area, the best, most responsible steps to take are to completely de-bone the venison off of the carcass and to only transport de-boned meat out of the CWD zone. All other waste, including the hide, skeleton and high-risk parts (brain, eyes, spleen, spinal cord and lymph glands) should be properly disposed of in locations deemed fit by the wildlife agency. Then wait for test results to come back before consuming it.”

Deer hunting is just as safe as it's always been. Get outside and enjoy it. (Shutterstock / Tom Reichner photo)

Whether CWD-positive or not, it’s also important to be careful in how you process deer.

“The CWD Alliance recommends wearing rubber gloves when field dressing deer and minimizing the use of a bone saw to cut through the brain or spinal cord (backbone),” Pinizzotto said. “Bone out the meat. Minimize contact with and do not consume brain or spinal cord tissues, eyes, spleen, or lymph nodes. Always wash hands thoroughly after dressing and processing game meat.”

So far, according to Ross, there isn’t any firm data that shows a human has (or can) contract CWD from cervids (deer, elk, etc.).

“Currently folks are researching this possibility through a variety of methods and it is generally unknown if there is a risk (there is conflicting evidence in the research),” Ross said. “However, for the time being most scientists believe there is a pretty strong 'species barrier,' which means that it’s unlikely the disease will jump to a new species.

“It’s safe to say that there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there who have consumed venison from a CWD-positive deer in the past,” Ross continued. “In some areas, where CWD has been around the longest (like Colorado or Wisconsin), the number of folks and sheer volume of meat consumed could be significant, yet no one has officially been diagnosed with health issues as a result of that. We should take that as a good sign.”

There have been some studies that suggested humans could be infected with CWD. However, according to Pinizzotto, that research was neither published nor replicated by other researchers.

“There is have never been a link established between CWD and human infection,” Pinizzotto said. “Some studies have been done where macaque monkeys have gotten the disease after eating infected meat, but this research remains unpublished. Other research that was published has been done on macaque monkeys and they did not get the disease. Researchers continue to search for potential links to human neurological diseases but have yet to find any.”

At the end of the day. You should be aware of CWD. Educate yourself about it. Understand what it truly is and what it means for deer and deer hunting. But don’t fear it. And most certainly don’t allow it to scare you away from our treasured hunting heritage.

“CWD is something that hunters should be aware of and concerned about, and they should also work closely with their state wildlife agencies when it comes to their role in helping to control the disease’s spread,” Pinizzotto said. “But deer hunting is still deer hunting, and the wonderful things about it that get us out of bed on cold mornings haven’t changed. In fact, deer populations continue to thrive with many states realizing record kills in recent years. While taking the extra step to have your deer tested, or having to handle and transport meat more thoughtfully than in the past is less convenient, being able to chase deer is worth the effort. If you look at the history of deer and deer hunting, it was hunters combined with good wildlife management that led the way to the robust opportunities that we have now. I’d put my money on hunters and wildlife managers to be the solution to this challenge as well.”

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