Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a debilitating neurological disease that affects deer, elk, elk, and caribou. When an animal is infected with the misfolded proteins, or prions, that lead to chronic wasting disease, symptoms often take years to manifest. These include a hunched posture, excessive salivation, floppy ears, muscle atrophy, and an uncanny disregard for all manner of deadly predators.
But once those symptoms do appear, the infected creature is guaranteed to succumb to their degenerative consequences; there is no recovery from a fight with CWD. And to make matters worse, the highly infectious prions that guide CWD through cervid populations can persist in soil and other natural substrates for years.
It should come as no surprise to anyone in the hunting or conservation communities that CWD has been creeping insidiously across the North American continent since it was first discovered in a population of captive mule deer at the Foothills Wildlife Research Center. of the Colorado Division of Wildlife near Fort Collins, Colorado in 1967.
Since then, the number of states with documented cases has steadily increased, and at the time of writing, the ever-fatal disease has been confirmed in 30 states and three Canadian provinces. In 2022 and late 2021 alone, the ranks of CWD-positive states and provinces increased to include North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Idaho, and Manitoba.
North Carolina is the most recent addition to this grim total, detecting chronic wasting disease in a white-tailed deer in Yadkin County on March 31, 2022. Awareness of chronic wasting disease in the old northern state came after after a local taxidermist sent in lymph node samples from a deer collected by hunters. deer as part of a cooperative surveillance program administered by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
“This was our biggest year of surveillance in state history,” Moriah Boggess, a deer biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), told MeatEater.
According to Boggess, who has been heavily immersed in CWD research and detection efforts throughout his tenure as a wildlife biologist, surveillance efforts in North Carolina increased after CWD emerged in a nearby county in Virginia.
“The biggest change to our CWD response plan came last May when the first positive CWD test was found in southwestern Virginia,” Boggess said. “The (North Carolina Wildlife Resources) Commission had a special meeting to review the statewide plan after that, and in all of our counties this year, we did CWD testing and increased surveillance with a special focus in the four counties closest to that first positive. in Montgomery County, Virginia.
Now that North Carolina has confirmed the presence of CWD, planning is underway to determine the best way to control its spread.
On April 12, 2022, NCWRC Director Cameron Ingram announced that he would invoke emergency powers to “activate a localized response to assist with the detection and isolation of chronic wasting disease in Yadkin and Surry counties and surrounding areas.” surrounding”.
This will include the suspension of fawn rehabilitation, mandatory CWD testing of deer taken by hunters in Yadkin and other adjacent counties, and a ban on mineral baits and licks, in addition to various other precautionary measures.
“The biggest effort will be behind the surveillance,” Boggess said. “That’s the most important part of the CWD response plan, and that means going in and trying to find out how widespread it is.”
the gulf coast
In Alabama, where chronic wasting disease was detected in Lauderdale County in the far northwest of the state last January, unrestricted hunter harvesting was used as a targeted tool in an attempt to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease. From the time of detection through February 10, 2022, Alabama deer hunters in Lauderdale and adjacent Colbert County were allowed to hunt an unlimited number of antlerless and antlerless deer on public and private land.
Boggess says it’s too early to tell if the NCWRC will implement similar strategies, but it’s safe to say hunter harvesting will play a critical role in the state’s mitigation efforts.
“Hunting effort is very important for any kind of long-term management,” he said. “We want to maintain the harvest we currently have or increase it, especially within a 5-mile radius around that first case, and we’re exploring different avenues to do that.”
Another concern for Boggess and other wildlife managers east of the Mississippi is the possibility of chronic wasting disease affecting newly reintroduced elk herds in the area.
“This first positive is more than 125 miles from our local elk population,” he said. “Of course, the already known distribution of CWD in the southeast is an imminent threat to all eastern elk populations, regardless of state.”
Shortly after Alabama announced its first case of chronic wasting disease, another southeast domino fell when wildlife officials in neighboring Louisiana confirmed the presence of the disease in a dead white-tailed deer in Tensas Parish. Bayou State was quick to implement preventative measures such as feeding and baiting bans in the affected area. They also placed restrictions on the movement of deer body parts.
“Any, and I mean any human-assisted movement of infected deer, whether they are live or dead deer, that has the greatest potential to move CWD across the landscape,” Boggess said, referring to game farms and others. human activities that facilitate the spread of chronic wasting disease. “Whatever the aspect of that movement, whether it be captive cervid farms, rehabilitated fawns, carcasses collected by hunters; if it’s an infected deer that’s moving, that’s how the disease spreads most easily.”
Their warnings recall a recent incident in Minnesota in which a captive deer breeder named Dean Page was cited for dumping CWD-infected whitetail carcasses in a public forest in Beltrami County.
When Page was ordered by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health to clean up his catastrophic mess and build 3,000 feet of 10-foot woven wire fencing around the perimeter of the 11-acre landfill, the deer farmer refused. Fortunately, the state took matters into its own hands, clearing the area of trees and brush and building “exclusion fences” in an attempt to keep deer and people out of the area.
Given the fact that infectious prions can persist in the soil for years, Page’s actions made the chosen landfills a true biohazard. The incident resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded remediation efforts and legislation seeking to ban deer farming in Minnesota.
north of the border
Our neighbors to the north have struggled to contain chronic wasting disease since at least 1996, when it appeared on a Saskatchewan elk farm. Today, the disease is highly concentrated in the southern parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where Canadian wildlife officials have described it as an epidemic. And in October 2021, it turned up on a Manitoba mule deer.
As in other areas where CWD is prevalent, suggestions of guilt have been leveled at Canada’s captive cervid industry, which, if you believe industry statistics, is strong and thriving. Captive breeding of cervids is known to create favorable conditions for the spread of chronic wasting disease because it brings the animals together in an unnatural way. In the wild, deer are much more spread out across the landscape.
According to the non-governmental Alberta Moose Commission, there are more than 10,000 domesticated moose in the province. Since the spring of 2020, that organization has been pushing to legalize the hunting of “canned” elk on the farms that house the animals.
According to a recent press release, wildlife officials in Manitoba are dealing with the new reality of CWD through a variety of practical measures that have included shootings led by agency officials.
“With a very short window of opportunity to reach potentially infected deer before CWD spreads further in Manitoba, local landowners have been contacted for permission to access their land,” the bulletin read. “Where the province has permission, it will undertake a specific effort to reduce the deer population in the CWD containment zone. As part of this measure, efforts will be made to recover as much meat as possible from animals that are free of CWD.”
Rocky Mountains and beyond
Back in the US, on the western side of the continental divide, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) announced its first case of chronic wasting disease in November 2021. The disease appeared in two mule deer killed north of town of McCall in the game. management unit 14 after the hunters who shot the males voluntarily submitted lymph node samples from their respective kills. The IDFG Commission recently adjusted hunting seasons in response to threats of chronic wasting disease and simultaneous outbreaks of epizootic haemorrhagic diseases. In the future, the agency will require mandatory CWD testing for all cervids collected from game management unit 14.
In Wyoming, one of the first US states to confirm chronic wasting disease, the debate over moose foraging areas continues. There are 22 such facilities in the Cowboy State managed by the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game (WDFG). In addition to the WDFG feeding fields, there is the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Elk Refuge, which provides supplemental feed for the 11,000-head herd of Jackson elk. Critics say the practice of feeding wild elk in Wyoming and other western states contributes to the spread of density-dependent diseases like chronic wasting disease.
It’s impossible to say where CWD will rear its head next, but states bracing for what must seem like an inevitable arrival include Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and a host of New England states, as well as Oregon, Washington and California.
To date, there are no cases, apart from highly manipulated laboratory experiments, of CWD spreading to a wildlife species outside of the family. cervids. and there is no evidence even, that the disease can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of venison or in any other way. That said, there are plenty of people, Ted Nugent notwithstanding, who won’t be queuing for CWD venison burgers any time soon.
Featured photo via Wyoming Fish and Game Department.