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Chronic Wasting Disease

As hunters, we need to reckon with a scary new reality

Chronic wasting disease has spread rapidly among wild deer and elk populations, particularly in the last ten years. If you don’t have CWD where you hunt, you don’t want it. This disease is 100% fatal, manifests slowly, and can remain in an infected environment for years. To avoid bringing CWD home with us, we’re all going to have to take extra steps in the field to be part of the solution. At the same time, hunters need to advocate for investments in surveillance, testing, management, and disease research to ensure the future of our deer hunting opportunities. Learn more below.

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CWD is the biggest threat to the future of deer hunting

Chronic wasting disease was first detected in a captive deer facility in Colorado in 1967 and, since that time, has spread to almost every place that these facilities operate. It was first found in free-ranging elk in the 1980s and has now been identified in captive and wild cervids across 30 U.S. states—12 states have joined that list in the last ten years alone. This alarming spread calls for hunters to educate themselves, follow new regulations, and take action to ensure the very future of deer hunting in America. But the captive deer industry needs to be held accountable for their role in spreading CWD, as well.

What is CWD and how does it spread?

Chronic wasting disease is a 100-percent fatal neurodegenerative wildlife disease that affects members of the deer family. While more and more hunters are finding CWD in their backyards, it remains a source of confusion for many. Much of this confusion pertains to the small particles that cause CWD, which are known as prions (pronounced PREE-ons.) Although we commonly associate transmissible diseases with viruses and bacteria, prions are neither. They are malformed proteins that accumulate in the brain and spread through the body of an animal, causing nervous tissue to become porous and damaged. Infected animals can then spread the disease through their urine, feces, and saliva and via close bodily contact. Other prion diseases include “Mad Cow” disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and goats, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

What are the symptoms of chronic wasting disease in deer?

CWD-positive deer may appear emaciated, lethargic, or unafraid of humans, and diseased animals may exhibit excessive thirst, urination, and salivation, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But it can take years of prion buildup for a deer to exhibit these symptoms, whereas viral diseases like epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) can be evident after only seven days. This is one reason why hunters do not often find heaps of deer carcasses in the field from CWD but see mass die-offs from EHD. It does not mean that CWD is not harmful. In fact, the prolonged incubation period makes CWD more insidious, because it is more difficult to detect early infections while deer continue to shed prions and infect other animals.

Can humans get chronic wasting disease?

There has never been a recorded case of cervid-human transmission, but the Center for Disease Control advises against eating meat from infected animals. And the World Health Organization has recommended since at least 1997 that known agents of prion diseases be kept out of the food chain. The bottom line is that, because they are not alive, CWD prions cannot be killed—they remain present in soils and the environment for years after an outbreak. You certainly cannot “cook them out” of your venison.

How do captive deer facilities contribute to the CWD problem?

The movement of live deer within and between states by the captive deer industry exacerbates the spread of CWD and powers the greatest threat to the future of deer hunting. Captive deer facilities cater to those who lack the time, patience, or skills to harvest a deer the old-fashioned way—but who have plenty of money and no qualms about practicing fair chase—by guaranteeing hunter success and growing deer that could never be found in nature. When a single deer can be sold for more than $25,000, it is easy to understand why there are 4,000 or more such facilities in the U.S. today. Their profit motive is so great that it is common for deer breeders to hide CWD infections, or simply not test, and thus spread the disease. In two-thirds of states in which CWD has been detected in wild and captive deer, it was first detected in a captive facility.

Do hunters play a role in spreading CWD?

Hunters can also unwittingly spread CWD by transporting the carcass of an infected animal. This is why state agencies and hunting groups are working to educate sportsmen and sportswomen on deboning deer in the field, properly disposing of deer parts, and complying with new regulations on the transport of harvested deer across hunting zones and state lines.

Think you know CWD?

Take Our Quiz

 
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Americans Support CWD Solutions

In a 2022 poll of 800 random voters from across the U.S., an overwhelming 94 percent said that the presence of wildlife was important to their quality of life, and 92 percent believe wildlife is important to their state’s economy. It’s no surprise, then, that hunters and non-hunters strongly support action on CWD:

    • 88 percent support additional federal investment in CWD management at the state level.
    • 93 percent support increasing the disease detection standards required of captive cervid operations if they are to be accredited as “low-risk” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
    • 90 percent support limiting the movement of live, captive deer between facilities to lower the possibility of disease spread—and half of this group said they strongly support such action.

    In total, 96 percent of respondents support their states taking action to curb the spread of CWD across the landscape.

    The poll was conducted on behalf of the TRCP and National Deer Association. Both of our organizations have been working for years to educate the public about the impacts of chronic wasting disease on deer, give hunters the tools to prevent CWD transmission, and alert lawmakers to the fact that the rampant spread of CWD threatens the future of wild deer and deer hunting in North America.

What TRCP is doing

Since 2018, the TRCP has led a coalition of hunting groups to advance federal policies and funding to address the spread of chronic wasting disease. While advocating for federal funding for research, surveillance, and testing, we are also working with state and federal agencies to guide CWD management policies and helping to educate the hunting community on what is at stake.

Here are just some of the ways we are tackling these goals.

Creating New Research and Management Solutions

The TRCP and its partners helped to develop and have pushed for ultimate passage of the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act, which calls for an annual $70-million investment through fiscal year 2028 to split between CWD management and research priorities. On October 19, 2021, Representatives Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) introduced the legislation, the result of several months of negotiation and debate between wildlife groups and captive deer industry stakeholders—it sailed through committee and the House passed the bill in a floor vote just seven weeks later. The Senate version of the bill was introduced by Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) in April 2022 and requires committee and floor debate. In the meantime, hunters should make sure that senators hear from our community about these priorities.

Securing Annual Investments in Disease Response

The TRCP’s coalition is working to restart and grow federal funding for CWD suppression from $5 million in Fiscal Year 2020 to a proposed $15.5 million in Fiscal Year 2023. Already, we successfully secured $7 million for state wildlife agencies to spend on CWD management in Fiscal Year 2021 and $10 million for the period between March and October 2022 

Here are three ways states use federal funding to control CWD. 

Holding the USDA and Captive Deer Industry Accountable

After recent chronic wasting disease outbreaks at multiple captive deer operations put wild deer at risk for infection, the TRCP and our partners began calling on U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to implement a moratorium on the interstate movement of all live deer. This would protect wild deer in states where the disease has not yet been detected. We are also urging the CWD interagency task force at the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to develop an immediate federal response to contain CWD. This should include expedited research into the transmission pathways of CWD, recommended strategies for reducing the spread of CWD, direct assistance for state management, and a third-party, independent review of the USDA Herd Certification Program—read more on this step below.

Certifying Only the Safest Operations

An agency at the USDA, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is tasked with the job of ensuring that potentially CWD-infected live deer aren’t being moved across the landscape—it is a job they aren’t doing particularly well. APHIS uses what they call the Herd Certification Program, an utterly toothless and strictly voluntary method for keeping captive deer herds “low-risk.” Only a fraction of deer farmers even participate in the program and each year so-called “low-risk herds” still manage to transport CWD-positive deer across state lines. It’s time that Congress and the USDA take a hard look at the persistent failures of the Herd Certification Program and identify specific ways to strengthen it.

  • If passed, the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act would secure…

    $35 million per year for research, which would focus on:

    • Methods to effectively detect CWD in live and harvested deer and the surrounding environment
    • Best practices for reducing CWD occurrence through sustainable harvest of deer and other cervids
    • Factors contributing to spread of the disease locally, such as animal movement and scavenging
  • If passed, the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act would secure…

    $35 million per year for management, including surveillance and testing, which would prioritize:

    • Areas with the highest incidence of CWD
    • Areas responding to new outbreaks of CWD
    • Areas without CWD that show the greatest risk of CWD emerging
    • Jurisdictions demonstrating the greatest financial commitment to managing, monitoring, surveying, and researching CWD
    • Efforts to develop comprehensive policies and programs focused on CWD management

Four Ways to Prevent Captive Deer from Spreading CWD

It is past time for state and federal regulators to step in and prevent the threat of CWD to wild deer, as the captive deer industry either lacks the ability or willingness to police itself. Here’s how:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture should immediately ban the interstate movement of live deer.
  • Congress needs to help fund surveillance and testing programs in all the states.
  • All captive deer facilities should follow the best management practices put forward by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in 2018, including double fencing—which helps to eliminate direct transmission from captive to wild deer—and 100-percent testing of all captive deer deaths.
  • All deer breeders should be required to have insurance or post a bond to fund the depopulation and permanent closure of infected facilities, so taxpayers no longer have to foot the bill for a bad actor’s reckless behavior.
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What hunters can do

On a very basic level, hunters should follow any rules on the use of feeders, bait piles, or mineral lures in your state and hunting zone. Check regulations pertaining to the movement of whole deer carcasses for that area AND where you live, if they are not the same place. Finally, get your deer tested—head to a local check station to have a wildlife professional take a sample from the lymph nodes of your harvested deer.

Want to do more? Here are additional resources.

Debone your deer in the field

Bone out your harvest to avoid moving sensitive parts of the deer that could carry CWD, including the brain, spinal cord, and spleen.

Know which parts are safe to use

How can you prevent the spread of CWD and get the most out of your harvest? We asked a scientist.

Dispose of gut piles properly

Check with your state wildlife agency about where to dispose of the parts of your deer carcass that could contain CWD—some states work with groups and individuals to set aside dumpsters or kiosks where hunters can easily deposit deer bones and tissues to prevent disease transmission.

Doug Duren

Doing It Right: Doug Duren

You may know Duren as a MeatEater podcast regular and good friend of Steven Rinella, but he’s also a lifelong conservationist who led the effort to provide six dumpsters for the proper disposal of deer bones and carcasses in southwest Wisconsin.

Learn More

Don’t buy into the misinformation spread by the captive deer industry

The captive cervid industry is well-connected politically, promotes their inflated importance to the economy, and uses online forums to sow seeds of mistrust among hunters. This is how 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.

Don’t buy into the industry’s propaganda. Download our guide busting seven common myths you’ll find online about CWD.

7 CWD Myths Busted

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA

In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.

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