There is a lot of misinformation out there, so we had three experts clarify exactly what will and won’t help stop the spread of CWD
Since the TRCP first began advocating for real and meaningful steps from national decision makers to control Chronic Wasting Disease, we’ve noticed that this emerging epidemic seems to be the new climate change. While the topic has become unnecessarily politicized in many online forums, some common misconceptions could be keeping many hunters from taking urgent action.
Many of us get reliable information from our friends and social networks about where to go hunting and fishing, what gear to buy, and what techniques to try. But on an issue that is this important to the future of deer hunting in America, we’d rather have hunters hear directly from the experts. So we brought together three of them to tell us honestly if any of these CWD-deniers have a point.
Here’s how they responded—calling on science, field experience, and just good sense—to the most common gripes we see from skeptics.
Gripe #1: “Chronic Wasting Disease has been naturally occurring as long as there have been deer—it is not new and the threat is no more imminent today than it was decades ago.”
RICHARDS: While it is challenging to prove either way, there is little evidence to support the idea that CWD has existed as long as deer have. The CWD distribution pattern observed in several geographic regions suggests disease was introduced in a modern timeframe, became established, and subsequently spread in a radial and progressive fashion. In several areas where the disease has been documented the longest and where prevalence is highest, population impacts have now been documented. If CWD had “been around forever,” it seems likely that these impacts would have been documented in the historical record.
THOMAS: CWD was first identified in the United States in 1967 in Colorado—so, no, it’s not exactly new. But it’s clear that the threat of CWD is growing at a faster rate each year. It has gradually spread around the Western states and into Canada, and in 2002, it was found east of the Mississippi River for the first time in Wisconsin. Mississippi recently became the 25th state to find the disease. Not only is the disease spreading across the United States—through the legal transport of live deer and elk and the natural movements of wild deer—it is also putting down deeper roots in affected areas. In one county in Wisconsin, more than 50 percent of adult bucks tested came up positive for the disease, and that rate has climbed faster each year that testing has been done.
CORNICELLI: It’s also important to note that state wildlife agencies have a moral and legal obligation to manage wildlife populations for the long-term. So, whether or not you believe that this threat is “imminent today”—which I do—it’s my job to focus on the future of these species. This concept is often difficult for hunters and many others to understand, because in today’s society we live so much in the present.
Gripe #2: “I’m not worried about CWD, because the disease has never been found in humans.”
THOMAS: It’s true that a link between CWD in deer and illness in humans who consume deer has not been proven. However, because similar diseases, such as mad cow disease, have made the jump from cattle to humans, both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control urge caution. A recent review of 23 different studies of CWD potential in humans concluded that “future discovery of CWD transmission to humans cannot be entirely ruled out on the basis of current studies, particularly in light of possible decades-long incubation periods for CWD prions in humans.” That’s why the QDMA urges hunters who kill deer in CWD zones to have each deer tested for the disease and wait for test results before consuming the venison.
CORNICELLI: Why take the risk? I am astonished at the low number of deer tested in Wisconsin counties with the highest concentration of CWD. It indicates that hunters are perfectly comfortable feeding infected venison to their families. Perhaps because at this point in time we aren’t seeing human disease, people don’t think it will ever be an issue. However, I follow the CDC guidelines, and so do most of the people I associate with.
Gripe #3: “I’m not worried about possibly consuming venison from a CWD-positive deer, because I don’t eat my meat rare.”
RICHARDS: Disease-associated prion proteins are very resistant to breakdown by heat. As such, cooking venison from a CWD-positive deer, regardless of how “well done” it is, will not appreciably deactivate prions.
THOMAS: One study found that prions are still viable after being incinerated at 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit. “Well done” won’t even scare ‘em.
CORNICELLI: Perhaps Hank Shaw can write a book on CWD-venison recipes? “Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion: The complete guide to cooking venison ash.”
Gripe #4: “We should just allow the natural predators of deer and elk to take care of the CWD problem.”
THOMAS: CWD incubates in whitetails for an estimated minimum of 16 months and an average of two years before the deer become “clinical.” This is when they begin to show symptoms and would be more susceptible to predators in their weakened state. Higher predator numbers would not control CWD, because adult deer are infectious to other deer throughout the entire incubation period.
Gripe #5: “Can’t we just shut down all the deer farms? Problem solved.”
RICHARDS: Even without the captive cervid industry, CWD will likely continue to grow and spread—it is now well-established among some wild cervid populations. Reducing or eliminating human-assisted movement of CWD, on the other hand, has been identified as a key preventative measure.
CORNICELLI: Even if we agreed it was the right decision, it would be difficult. The captive cervid industry is well-connected politically and has been very effective at promoting their importance to the world economy. Conversely, hunters do a poor job organizing and can sometimes seem more interested in their short-term benefits—antler point restrictions, season timing, and bag limits—rather than the long-term viability of deer populations. This is how deer farming, a small industry at $17 million a year in Minnesota, can overwhelm something as economically important as statewide deer hunting, worth $500 million a year in Minnesota.
Then there are hunters who buy into the captive cervid industry propaganda, saying, “This is not a big deal, we can use genetic manipulation to solve this problem, and captive cervid testing is 100 percent accurate.” None of this is remotely true.
Gripe #6: “You are exaggerating the scope of the CWD problem and fearmongering to raise money.”
THOMAS: Perhaps the most dangerous thing about CWD is how slowly it eats its way through a deer population. It does not create stacks of dead deer that are visible to hunters. In fact, many hunters in CWD zones never see sick deer. While CWD is always fatal to any deer that gets it, they may not show symptoms or appear sick for up to two years. Meanwhile, they are spreading it to other deer and depositing prions in the environment through their saliva, feces, and urine. So the situation may not appear alarming, even inside CWD zones.
The alarming part is what will happen to these deer populations over the next 10 years, 20 years, and beyond. There is no vaccine or cure for CWD, it is 100 percent fatal, and we still don’t know how to eradicate it from areas where it has been established. These are the facts—not exaggeration—and this is a recipe for a slow-moving disaster. Action must be taken now to prevent the further spread of CWD and to focus research on finding solutions.
Gripe #7: “CWD is such a huge problem, there’s nothing that any of us can do at this point.”
CORNICELLI: I don’t share that fatalistic view, and I think there’s still a lot we can do—although I admit that in several places (parts of Wisconsin), the horse has not only left the barn, it died some time ago. As an agency manager for more than 25 years, I would be negligent in my responsibilities, as would my colleagues, if we threw up our hands and gave up. But wildlife management authority is not created equal in every state. Some states have the regulatory authority they need to find solutions, but often state legislatures are unwilling to take the necessary steps to do what the state wildlife agency believes to be right.
THOMAS: Yes, there is, and hunters can contribute. When you travel out of state to hunt, find out if you’ll be hunting in a CWD zone, learn the local regulations about transporting parts of your deer carcass. If you learn of someone planning to illegally transport live deer, report them to law enforcement.
Prevention is the only effective method for dealing with CWD, and hunters in unaffected areas must become engaged in the prevention effort. If you don’t have CWD in your woods, you don’t want it.
The top and third photos courtesy of Larry Smith.