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Hunting & Fishing

What to Know About Chronic Wasting Disease

January 26, 2024

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has become a serious concern for landowners and hunters alike in recent years, posing a serious threat to game populations across many parts of the United States. 

This article will examine the root causes of chronic wasting disease, modes of transmission, and what hunters and landowners can do to slow the spread of this very harmful disease.

What is Chronic Wasting Disease?

Chronic Wasting Disease is a prion disease that has progressively spread to numerous states. Impacting primarily deer, elk, and moose populations, this neurodegenerative disease destroys nerve cells in the animal’s brain. 

During his recent appearance on the National Land Podcast, Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia Dr. Michael Chamberlain explained the basics of Chronic Wasting Disease, stating the following:

“CWD is what’s called a prion disease. A prion is just a protein that becomes misshapen and therefore it accumulates in the brain and causes neurological problems. There are a number of species that have CWD in their populations, deer, elk, and moose for example. And because it’s a neurological disease, it’s 100% fatal. Once the deer contract the disease, they don’t survive it. So it’s a doozy in the disease world. Anything that’s 100% fatal, and especially a neurological disorder like this, is very problematic.”

Can Chronic Wasting Disease Impact Humans?

One of the biggest questions hunters likely have regarding CWD is whether or not this disease may prove harmful to humans. According to the CDC, “there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected with CWD prions. Nevertheless, these experimental studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures to CWD.”

Chamberlain also echoed this statement, explaining, “There have been conflicting studies. There has been work showing that monkeys that were fed meat from CWD-infected animals could acquire the disease. It wasn’t foolproof, but it did happen. 

Then there’s other research showing that it wasn’t transmitted through the consumption of meat. The bottom line is that the CDC recommends that if the animal is positive, you don’t consume the meat because there’s so much uncertainty with this question. It’s going to take time to answer this question, but I do know there’s other work ongoing.”

How Does CWD Spread?

As noted above, Chronic Wasting Disease is a prion disease, meaning that a malformed protein is the root cause of the disease. In the wild, the transmission of this protein can happen in a variety of ways as Chamberlain explained.

Regarding the transmission of CWD, Chamberlain stated, “If you think about a protein and how that animal would shed that protein, it could be through feces, urine, saliva, say through grooming from one animal to the next. It could be shed into the environment say on plants or in the soil, and when another animal uses that plant or comes into contact with that soil, the protein could be transferred to that animal.”

“There’s even emerging evidence suggesting that it can be transmitted in utero, so you could have fawns being produced already infected with the disease. And these proteins are extremely resilient, they’ll stay in the environment for a long time. Evidence suggests that once you have it, you don’t get rid of it. It’s there in the environment and it’s very persistent.”

He went on to explain that oftentimes the deer they observe dying of CWD are upwards of a year or two old, indicating that these deer are living with CWD for some time before becoming symptomatic and ultimately succumbing to the disease. Despite being asymptomatic and testing negative on CWD tests, these infected deer can still spread the disease, which contributes to the overall rapid transmission rate of chronic wasting disease.

What Areas Have Been Impacted by Chronic Wasting Disease?

First officially discovered in North America in the 1980s, chronic wasting disease has slowly been becoming more prevalent throughout the United States as its rapid transmission rate has significantly aided the spread of the disease. As testing for CWD has become more robust, the disease has been discovered in increasing locations across not only the United States, but the world as a whole, as Chamberlain explained.

Chamberlain stated, “I think most people would conclude that CWD was here before [1960], and just wasn’t detected. I believe it was discovered first in the wild in the early 1980s, and as states started testing more, it was detected in more areas. Today I believe it’s been detected in 31 states as well as a number of Canadian provinces, and overseas in Scandinavian countries and South Korea. As we continue to test more, we’re detecting it in more and more places.”

“In some areas, the prevalence is extremely high, with more than one in four animals being infected with the disease. In some areas, like in some parts of Arkansas, the prevalence is even higher than that, with large percentages of a herd being infected with the disease.”

These increased percentages of infection are especially worrying considering the lethality of CWD. To protect and preserve game populations, it’s important for hunters and wildlife experts alike to not only be aware of outbreaks of CWD in their areas but also proactively work to prevent further spreading of the disease themselves.

How Can Hunters Help Control the Spread of CWD?

There are still many unknowns regarding CWD, so one of the best things hunters can do to protect themselves and their environment is to stay up to date with the latest reports from their areas. Knowing CWD is present in a given area should be cause to exercise more caution when harvesting and handling deer.

Staying informed on state and local guidelines and regulations regarding CWD is also important to help prevent unnecessarily spreading the disease and protect game populations.

It’s also important for anyone spending time in an area known to have CWD present in the environment to be mindful of transporting things in and out of that ecosystem, including gear/equipment and vehicles. Speaking to this point, Chamberlain stated, “From our perspective as researchers, we try to be hyper-sensitive to the way that we’re treating our vehicles, the way that gear is being stored. We also try to leave everything that we’re using in these areas where the research is occurring.”

Chamberlain also stressed the importance of taking an understanding approach toward developing government regulations, recognizing that the path toward a solution will take time and cooperation on the parts of researchers, regulations, and recreationists alike. He stated, “We need to give agencies a bit of flexibility here folks. There’s a lot we don’t know [about CWD] and they need to have enough flexibility to make changes and react the best way they think we should based on the science. We need to understand that we’re not going to get the answers to this disease next week, next month, or even next year. It’s going to take more time, more studies, more money, and more frustration for us to get there. But we will get there.”

If you’ve got more questions about chronic wasting disease in your area or how it might impact your hunting season this year, contact your local Land Professional today!

About the Author
Bryce Berglund is National Land Realty’s Content Marketing Specialist. He is currently residing in Minnesota, where he attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Bryce is an appreciator of all things artistic, and likes to spend time at his cabin with his dog and family.