Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disease that kills deer, elk and other cervids, and many biologists believe it is the No. 1 threat to the future of deer populations. State agencies work diligently to monitor and track the disease, and they depend on cooperation from hunters to make it happen. We spoke to Lindsay Thomas, the National Deer Association’s chief communications officer, to learn about CWD and what hunters should do if they’re targeting cervids in a CWD zone.
CWD is contagious and slowly kills every deer, elk or other cervid it infects. Unlike many wildlife diseases, CWD is difficult to detect, especially in live deer. It is transmitted by infectious proteins called prions, which differ from viruses or bacteria. Prion-related diseases affect nerve cells in the brain and are 100% fatal after causing mental, physical and sensory problems. CWD cannot be treated in cervid populations.
“You cannot look at a deer and tell if it has CWD,” Thomas said. “The incubation period in deer is one to two years before visible signs of sickness appear, meaning deer walk around looking completely healthy while carrying the disease.”
Currently, CWD has been found in 30 states. It was first documented in a captive mule deer in Colorado in 1967. It was considered a “Western U.S.” disease until it was detected in Wisconsin after the 2001 deer season. Thomas said the disease can spread in three ways:
To stop the spread, hunters have to help. “Hunters need to be a partner in this effort,” Thomas said. “State wildlife agencies take steps to manage the disease, but they can’t do these things on their own. Every deer you harvest in a CWD zone and get tested helps the agency stay on top of prevalence rates.”
CWD hasn’t been found to jump the species barrier to affect humans, but CWD is in the same family of diseases (prion) as Mad Cow Disease, which jumped the species barrier to humans in Great Britain during the 1980s. The human form of the disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Health officials recommend not eating the meat from animals testing positive for the disease.
To do your part and keep yourself safe, you must first know if you’re hunting an area with CWD. Thomas said the best ways to check are to visit your state agency website, or if you have an OnX Hunt app subscription, to use the free CWD-layer map in the app to see which states, zones and counties have CWD-infected deer. The NDA partnered with OnX to create the map layer for its paid users.
Whether you’re hunting an area with CWD or not, Thomas encourages all hunters to familiarize themselves with the disease and how CWD affects hunting regulations in their state. For example, all states have carcass importation bans, meaning it’s illegal to transport a carcass across a state line. Because of CWD, some states started implementing rules regarding the transportation of deer carcasses over county lines.
Sign up for your state agency’s email list and follow the agency on social media to get recent, relevant information. Also, research where you must take the animal for testing, how to dispose of it properly, and what to do if you plan to mount it. “Start today,” Thomas said. “There’s no reason to wait to become informed.”
Only use trusted sources like your state wildlife agency, the NDA or CWD Alliance when consuming CWD information. Thomas said there’s a lot of misinformation about CWD online. Be skeptical of any information that doesn’t cite credible research or sources.
Review these steps for handling a deer after the kill in a CWD zone. Please note that hunting regulations vary by state, so confirm what to do with your state agency website.
1. Wear Gloves to Field-Dress and Bone Out the Meat
Nitrile gloves help protect you against infection. It’s wise to wear them anytime you handle a dead animal. Keep them on as you field-dress and debone your harvest.
2. Dispose of the Carcass; Submit the Animal for Testing
CWD prions are concentrated in a cervid’s brain, spinal cord and lymph nodes. After removing the meat, you should get the animal tested. Testing is typically easy and free. Simply drop off the deer head in a designated, refrigerated cooler where a biologist will test the animal. Some states allow hunters to submit lymph nodes, while others have staff-operated posts on busy weekends.
You can bury the rest of the carcass or bring it to a CWD carcass drop-off location to safely dispose of it. If you shot a buck and want to mount it, Thomas said most states allow hunters to leave CWD zones with a clean skull plate and antlers. However, if you don’t know how to cape the animal and plan to leave the head and brain intact, you’ll have to find a taxidermist within the zone. Many taxidermists work with the state agency to submit CWD samples.
3. Process and Freeze Your Venison
As you wait for the test results, process and freeze your venison, but don’t eat it until you know it’s safe. Although there’s no evidence of CWD affecting humans, experts recommend against eating the meat of an infected animal. Don’t put yourself at risk.
4. Get the Test Results
After a week or two, your state agency will email you the results of your harvest. However, some states don’t contact hunters with negative results. Know how your state communicates the test results.
a. If the animal tests positive for CWD:
Dispose of the meat the same way you did the carcass, either by burying it or in a CWD drop-off location. “This is a sad day,” Thomas said. “When I talk to people who have proudly harvested a deer but can’t eat the meat, I tell them they still did a good thing. They removed an animal from the landscape that was carrying and spreading CWD. Hunters are contributing by keeping the prevalence rates low.” Additionally, most states will reissue a new tag. If you don’t receive a new tag, contact your state wildlife agency to inquire.
b. If the animal tests negative for CWD:
You can carry on as usual. Enjoy the venison and continue to test future animals you harvest.
If you aren’t hunting a CWD zone or the disease isn’t in your area, you can still get involved to help states test for and monitor the disease. Many states have voluntary testing opportunities, where participants can win prizes by submitting deer carcasses. Hunters must do their part to protect cervid populations and minimize the spread of disease.