Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a debilitating neurological malady affecting deer, elk, moose, and caribou. When an animal is infected with the misfolded proteins, or prions, that give rise to CWD, it often takes years for symptoms to manifest. These include a stooped posture, excessive salivation, sagging ears, muscle wasting, and a bizarre indifference toward all sorts of deadly predators.
But once those symptoms do show up, the infected critter is guaranteed to succumb to their degenerative consequences; there’s no recovering from a bout with CWD. And to make matters worse, the highly infectious prions that shepherd CWD through cervid populations can persist in soil and on other natural substrates for years at a time.
It should come as a surprise to no one in the hunting or conservation communities that CWD has been insidiously creeping across the North American continent since it was first discovered in a population of captive mule deer at the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Foothills Wildlife Research Facility near Fort Collins, Colorado in 1967.
Since then, the number of states with documented cases has ticked steadily upward, and as of this writing, the presence of the always-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 grew to include North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Idaho, and Manitoba.
North Carolina North Carolina is the most recent addition to this grim total, having detected CWD in a whitetail deer in Yadkin County on March 31, 2022. Awareness of CWD in the Old North State came after a local taxidermist submitted lymph node samples from a hunter-harvested deer as part of a cooperative surveillance program administered by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
“This was our biggest surveillance year ever in the history of the state,” Moriah Boggess, deer biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) told MeatEater.
According to Boggess, who’s been heavily immersed in CWD research and detection efforts throughout his entire tenure as a wildlife biologist, surveillance efforts in North Carolina ramped up after CWD emerged in a nearby county in Virginia.
“The biggest change to our CWD response plan came last May when that first CWD-positive test was found in southwest Virginia,” Boggess said. “The (North Carolina Wildlife Resources) Commission had a special meeting to revise the plan statewide after that, and in all of our counties this year, we tested for CWD and increased surveillance with a special focus on 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 how best 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 CWD in Yadkin and Surry counties and surrounding areas.”
This will include the suspension of fawn rehabilitation, mandatory CWD testing of hunter harvested deer in Yadkin and other adjacent counties, and the prohibition of baiting and mineral licks in addition to several other precautionary measures.
“The biggest effort will be behind surveillance,” Boggess said. “That is the most important part of the CWD response plan, and that means getting in there and trying to figure out how widespread it is.”
The Gulf Coast In Alabama, where CWD was detected in Lauderdale County in the northwest corner of the state just this January, unrestricted hunter harvest was used as a targeted tool in an attempt to halt the spread of CWD. From the time of detection to Feb. 10, 2022, Alabama deer hunters in Lauderdale and the adjacent Colbert County were allowed to harvest an unlimited number of antlered or antlerless deer on both private and public land.
Boggess says it’s too early to know if the NCWRC will implement similar strategies, but it’s safe to say that hunter harvest will play a critical role in the state’s mitigation efforts.
“Hunting effort is very important to 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.”
Also of concern to Boggess and other wildlife managers east of the Mississippi is the potential for CWD to impact the area’s newly reintroduced elk herds.
“This first positive is over 125 miles from our local elk population,” he said. “Of course, the already-known distribution of CWD across the Southeast is a looming threat to all Eastern elk populations, regardless of the state.”
Shortly after Alabama announced its first case of CWD, another Southeastern domino fell when wildlife officials in neighboring Louisiana confirmed the disease’s presence in a whitetail buck killed in Tensas Parish. The Bayou State was quick to implement preventative measures like 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’re deer that are alive or dead, that has the greatest potential for moving CWD across the landscape,” Boggess said, in reference to game farms and other human activities that facilitate the spread of CWD. “Whatever that movement looks like, whether it’s captive cervid farms, rehabilitated fawns, hunter harvested carcasses; if it’s an infected deer getting moved, that’s how the disease most readily gets spread.”
His caveats call to mind a recent incident in Minnesota in which a captive cervid farmer named Dean Page was cited for dumping CWD-infected whitetail carcasses on a piece of public forest in Beltrami County.
When the Minnesota Board of Animal Health ordered Page to clean up his catastrophic mess and construct 3,000 feet of 10-foot woven-wire fencing around the perimeter of the 11-acre dump site, the deer farmer refused. Thankfully, the state took matters into its own hands, clearing trees and brush from the area and building “exclusionary fencing” in an attempt to keep deer and people out of the area.
Given the fact that infectious prions can persist on the land for years, Page’s actions turned his chosen dumping grounds into a veritable biohazard. The incident resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded remediation efforts and a piece of legislation that is seeking to ban deer farms outright in Minnesota.
North of the Border Our neighbors to the north have struggled to contain CWD since at least 1996 when it showed up on a Saskatchewan elk farm. Today the disease is heavily congregated in the southern portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where it has been described as an epidemic by Canadian wildlife officials. And in October 2021, it cropped up in a Manitoba mule deer.
As in other areas where CWD is prevalent, suggestions of culpability have been leveled at Canada’s captive cervid industry, which, if you believe industry statistics, is robust and thriving. It is known that captive cervid farming creates favorable conditions for the spread of CWD because it brings animals into unnaturally close proximity. In the wild, deer are far more dispersed on the landscape.
According to the non-governmental Alberta Elk Commission, there are more than 10,000 domesticated elk in the province. Since the spring of 2020, that organization has been lobbying to legalize “canned” elk hunts on farms harboring the animals.
According to a recent media bulletin, wildlife officials in Manitoba are coping with the new CWD reality through a variety of hands-on measures that have included targeted shootings by agency officials.
“With a very short window of opportunity to reach potentially infected deer before CWD spreads further into Manitoba, local landowners have been contacted for permission to access their land,” the bulletin reads. “Where the province has permission, it will undertake a targeted effort to reduce the deer population in the CWD containment zone. As part of this measure, efforts will be made to salvage as much meat as possible from animals found to be free of CWD.”
Rocky Mountains and Beyond Back in the U.S., on the western side of the Continental Divide, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) announced its first case of CWD in Nov. 2021. The disease showed up in two mule deer bucks killed north of the town of McCall in game management unit 14 after the hunters who shot the bucks voluntarily submitted lymph node samples from their respective kills. The IDFG Commission recently adjusted hunting seasons in response to threats from CWD and concurrent outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease. Going forward the agency will require mandatory CWD testing for all cervids harvested in game management unit 14.
In Wyoming, one of the first U.S. states to confirm CWD, debate over elk feed grounds continues to rage on. There are 22 such facilities in the Cowboy State administered by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WDFG). In addition to the WDFG feedgrounds, there’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Elk Refuge, which provides supplemental feed for the 11,000-head Jackson Elk Herd. Critics say that the practice of feeding wild elk in Wyoming, and in other Western states, contributes to the proliferation of density dependent-diseases like CWD.
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 whole host of New England states, as well as Oregon, Washington, and California.
To date, there are no instances—aside from highly manipulated laboratory experiments—of CWD spilling over into a wildlife species outside the family cervidae. And there is no evidence yet, that the disease can be transmitted to humans via venison consumption or any other mode. That said, there are plenty of folks, Ted Nugent notwithstanding, who won’t be lining up for CWD-infected deer burgers anytime soon.
Feature photo via Wyoming Game and Fish Department.