Maybe you don’t realize how serious this new threat to our white-tailed deer really is. It began in the late 1960s when a strange new disease was discovered killing captive mule deer in Colorado. It was given the name Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) because affected deer eventually lost considerable weight, making their ribs show. Initially, this fatal disease was spread by shipping infected captive deer yet without symptoms (it can take years for symptoms to appear) from privately owned deer farms to different states and countries. Inadequate means of keeping infected captive deer from coming in contact with wild deer then opened the door to passing CWD to free-ranging white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer, elk, moose, caribou and reindeer in 24 U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and two foreign countries, including of all places, South Korea. Though stringent new federal and state regulations and diagnostic testing now make it unlikely animals with undiagnosed CWD can be shipped anywhere, this fatal disease has thus far defied all attempts to eliminate or halt its spread among our unfenced wild whitetails.
No American citizens have thus far contracted this disease after handling or eating venison from deer infected with CWD and many researchers believe humans and our livestock are safe from it, but a theoretical risk of humans contracting this disease nonetheless exists. The misshapen prions that cause this diseases can mutate and have. CWD belongs to a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) that include scrapie (fatal to sheep), mad cow disease (fatal to bovines) and relatively rare Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (unrelated to a disease of animals but fatal to a small number of Americans annually). Scrapie has never affected humans, being unable to jump the usual barrier between different species of mammals. From mad cow disease, however, came a new variant of “Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease” which did jump the species barrier from cattle to humans, killing 177 people that ate beef from infected cattle in the United Kingdom between 1986 and 2012. This might not be the end of it. New studies in the UK reveal persons with certain genetics may develop symptoms of this variant of CJD many years after being infected.
Most researchers and organization involved with seeking to stem CWD in North American recommend taking certain precautions when hunting and taking deer in areas where CWD in deer is known to exist. The following precautions include a few additions of my own:
• Do not harvest a deer that appears sick, emaciated (ribs showing) or acting abnormally.
• Whether a deer you harvested had any symptoms of CWD or not, wear latex/rubber gloves (arm-length) when field dressing it.
• Have your deer carcass tested for CWD as directed by your state Department of Natural Resources, thus providing information vital to halting the future spread of CWD.
• When butchering, bone the meat (cut meat away from bone), sawing through no bones, especially the skull or spine (do not split the backbone).
• Avoid handling brain, spinal cord or lymph glands.
• Thoroughly clean your hands and sanitize your tools after field dressing or butchering by boiling them in water for 20 minutes.
• Instruct your meat processor (if you take your deer to one) to bone your meat and package it separately from other deer.
• Consume none of the meat until you have received results of your test for CWD. If positive, destroy your venison as directed by your state DNR.
Personally, I believe our whitetails will be saved, but it may be a lengthy and heartbreaking ordeal for deer, state deer managers and deer hunters. Almost everything imaginable has already been tried to arrest the spread of CWD among wild deer in America, but unfortunately without significant success. Hopefully, some new research will soon find a new way to stop this disease. Success may have to come from whitetails themselves, deer vulnerable to CWD dying and deer not vulnerable to CWD surviving to recreate a whole new population of whitetails resistant to CWD. As mature whitetails have been proving to human hunters for thousands of years, they are amazingly adaptable and persevering animals. I can’t believe some misshapen prions that cause CWD can actually wipe them out.
Meanwhile, unaffected whitetails need to be hunted. Without hunting, healthy whitetails can double in numbers in one year. Nowhere in America can remaining habitat suitable for whitetails support twice as many deer. If allowed to become overabundant, they will suffer from malnutrition and starvation due to a lack of adequate food, especially in winter, making them vulnerable to disease. Our obligations as American deer hunters do not end with the purchase of a hunting license or the threat of CWD. During the coming days and years, we must give those who work to stop CWD our greatest support. They are going to need it.