As hunters start sighting in for deer season, there’s a new concern in the woods: chronic wasting disease. While CWD has never been detected in New England, it was recently found for the first time in Quebec.
Should hunters be concerned? Let’s look at what we know – and don’t – about CWD.
CWD was first discovered at a university research lab in Colorado 50 years ago. In free-roaming deer, it was first detected in the 1980s, also in Colorado. Since then, the disease has slowly spread around the country from Texas to North Dakota and east to Pennsylvania. It affects deer, elk and moose.
The first common fear among hunters is that CWD will affect them. However, there is not a single case of CWD affecting a human. While CWD is related to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (which does affect people), these kinds of ailments tend to not cross the species barrier. The former does not affect people, just like the latter does not affect deer.
Because state agencies have typically tested very few harvested deer for CWD-even in states where the disease has been previously detected-it’s very likely that humans have been eating CWD-positive deer for decades. Yet there’s no evidence that it has ever affected anyone.
A second common concern is that CWD will wipe out deer populations. This hasn’t happened, either.
CWD has been detected in Colorado for three decades and in Wisconsin for close to 20 years. Yet hunting opportunities are still strong in both states. When researchers in those states examined whether CWD had an effect on deer populations and mortality, they found it did not.
Why? CWD has a long incubation period – up to two years. Deer that get CWD are more likely to die of something else, such as predators, starvation or vehicle strike.
Lastly, there is confusion about how CWD spreads. It is often a mystery. For example, no one is sure (yet) where it came from in Quebec. And CWD was detected in New York in 2005 in one isolated case, but further testing of local deer has not found it again.
CWD is believed to occur spontaneously, which may explain isolated cases, such as Quebec or a previous finding of the disease in reindeer in Norway.
CWD can also be spread inadvertently through hunters moving carcasses. An official with the U.S. Geological Survey has identified carcass movement as a key threat to accidentally spreading CWD. In the New York case, it may have been accidentally spread through a taxidermist. A recent case in Minnesota was linked back to the taxidermy work done by the deer farmer.
Sometimes deer farms, which raise animals for meat and velvet, are blamed for CWD because they move animals between farms and breeding facilities in different states. But farms are actually low-risk due to the stringent USDA rules they are required to follow in order to ship interstate.
Deer farms, which are permitted in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and other facilities that move deer across state lines, must be certified under a federal CWD monitoring program. Obtaining certification requires that a farm test all of its eligible animals for CWD for at least five years, with zero positive test results. Farms are constantly testing for CWD and should be seen as the “canary in the coal mine” for an area, but not necessarily the source.
Because CWD is spread by free-ranging animals, there’s little anyone can do to stop its slow spread. But sportsmen should support sensible policies.
States should strictly enforce bans on importing carcasses from CWD-positive areas. State agencies should conduct more testing of hunter harvests for CWD, just to be sure. And states should help fund scientific research to help find solutions to CWD. Recent research has discovered new genetic markers that appear to be more resistant to CWD than previously known to exist, but more funding is needed.
Hunters should also understand that much of the concern about CWD is driven by media coverage. Other deer diseases, such as bluetongue, act quickly and can in fact drastically kill off deer in an area – yet get relatively little media attention.
Hunting is a tradition that provides good bonding experiences for friends and family. Sportsmen shouldn’t let the experience be diminished by unfounded worries.
AUTHOR: Charly Seale, American Cervid Alliance