6 Things Hunters Have to Know About Chronic Wasting Disease

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Keys to hunting smartly and safely in and around areas where CWD has been detected in deer

I just Googled “Chronic Wasting Disease” and got 28,700,000 results, links where you can go to get information on the nasty neurological disease that is affecting some herds of whitetails and mule deer across North America. 

CWD causes a spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals that results in emaciation, abnormal behavior and ultimately death. You don’t have time to browse 29 million links on this horrid disease, but you do need to be CWD informed because there are practical takeaways for hunting season. We've boiled it down to 6 things to remember this fall. 

Do you know how to safely handle a deer carcass in the age of CWD? (Image by Bill Konway)

1. Know When to Have Your Deer Tested

As of August 2020, 315 counties in 24 states, from Wyoming to Mississippi to upstate New York (new on the list this year) reported CWD in free-ranging deer. An excellent resource is this CWD map which lists all counties in all states where CWD has been confirmed. Check out the map, and if you hunt in or near any region that has CWD you should have any deer you shoot tested. Each state’s hunting website has specific information on how and where to have an animal tested. Be advised that because of COVID-19, CWD testing and sites might be limited this year. 

2. Use Deer Scents Legally

During the 2019-2020 season, South Carolina became the ninth state to prohibit the use of natural deer urine to attract whitetails, and to require hunters to use synthetic lures only. Other states with this new law include Tennessee, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia. In a press release, the South Carolina DNR said: “the department is following the lead of other states in proactively prohibiting the use of (natural urine) in order to minimize the potential for CWD introduction…”

In South Carolina and the other aforementioned states, it is not only illegal to use natural deer urine, but also to possess it while hunting. If you hunt in one of these states, remove any natural urine/scents left over in your day pack and replace it with new bottles of synthetic scents.

Similarly, more and more states are changing their laws regarding the use of deer feed and minerals. My home state of Virginia, for example, banned minerals this year. The thinking is that by banning or restricting bait and / or minerals that congregate deer in small areas, any potential animal-to-animal spread of CWD can be slowed or prevented.

Laws on attracting deer with bait or minerals vary widely from state to state and are subject to change at any time. Check your state’s website for specific information. 

3. Know the Rules for Hauling Deer Home

Unless you hunt a few miles from the house and don’t have to drive across a county or state line, the good old days of shooting a buck, loading the whole animal into your pickup, and driving home are pretty much gone.

To minimize the risk of spreading CWD into new areas, most states have adopted new regulations regarding the transport of deer that hunters shoot. Since the infective prion that causes CWD is concentrated in the brain, spinal cord, and lymph glands of deer, the most common regulation is to prohibit the importation of whole deer carcasses harvested from a CWD area into another county or state. Generally, most states do not allow the importation of any brain or spinal column tissue of any deer.

Only the following may be transported legally: 

  • Quarters and other cuts of meat with no part of the spinal column or head attached.
  • Meat that has been boned out.
  • Clean hides with no heads attached.
  • Clean (no meat or tissue attached) skull plates with antlers attached.
  • Antlers with no meat or tissue attached.

Since transport laws are continually evolving, check the regulations in your home state and any state you plan to hunt. Also — and this is important — check transport laws of every state you will travel through with deer meat and parts as you return home from a successful hunt. All state wildlife agencies provide CWD transport information on their websites.

4. Know How to Butcher Deer Safely

To minimize the risk of exposure to CWD, wear latex or rubber gloves when handling and gutting a deer, and boning out meat. Avoid sawing through bone, particularly the spinal column. Do not cut meat with a blade previously used to cut bone. Remove as much fatty tissue as possible. Scientists say many lymph glands are located in fat deposits under the skin of a deer.

A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that a five-minute soak in a 40% solution of household bleach decontaminated stainless-steel wires coated with CWD prions. Scientists used the wires to model knives and saws that hunters and meat processors use on deer.

After butchering, soak your knives and saws in a 50/50 solution of bleach and water. Out of an abundance of caution, it couldn’t hurt for hunters everywhere to decontaminate their tools this way.

5. Know How to Dispose of a Carcass

The good old days of butchering a deer and discarding the bones out in the Back 40 are also long gone in CWD areas. Among wildlife managers and scientists, proper carcass disposal is high on the list to minimize the spread of CWD. The Wisconsin DNR recommends hunters dispose of a deer skeleton and bones in one of two ways.

Best is to bag the bones and dispose in a landfill, which creates a barrier between uninfected deer and waste that might contain infectious CWD material. You can also bury a carcass and bones on private land. Bury deep enough so that scavengers can’t dig it up.

It is illegal to dispose of a carcass on public lands or roadways. Field-dressing a deer and leaving the gut pile on public or private land is still permitted.

6. Know What's Safe to Eat

It’s the number one question about CWD on Google. Is deer meat safe? Should I feed it to my family?

Last year the National Deer Alliance (NDA) put out a statement that sums it up well:
 
Actions taken in response to CWD must be based on the best available science. After more than 50 years of history with CWD, undoubtedly thousands, if not tens of thousands, of infected animals have been eaten, yet there remains no human case of the disease.

The NDA points out that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to state there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD transmission in humans. But, the CDC recommends that people not eat deer that tests positive for the disease out of an abundance of caution. 

If you hunt in or near an area where CDW has been detected, you should have a deer tested before eating it. The NDA agrees with the guidance from CDC but reiterates that the agency does not state transmission to humans is either likely or inevitable.

“The last thing we need to do is scare people away from consuming deer meat … Further research is needed to answer the many important questions we have about CWD and how to manage it, but until science tells us more, we have to move forward armed with the best information available, and nothing more.”