Chronic wasting disease was confirmed in Montana this fall. Special hunts in two CWD-positive regions will soon give us an indication of how common the infection is in deer. But the pattern of CWD in other states indicates it will only get worse with time.
In the more than 20 states and provinces where CWD has been detected, only New York prevented its permanent presence. In 2005, CWD was discovered in small herds of captive deer and two wild whitetails, all in the upstate county of Oneida. New York began closely monitoring deer in the Oneida County containment area and prohibited the transport of certain deer body parts, as well as the import of deer carcasses. The state also set up check stations in the region to test hunter-killed deer for CWD.
New York tested 2,400 deer last year and 40,000 overall since 2002. No other CWD positives have yet turned up.
That’s good news for New York. The limited area of the outbreak may have been a factor in that success. Such an outcome will be harder in the open spaces of Montana, surrounded on three sides by CWD positive states or provinces with free ranging herds of deer and elk, all oblivious to political boundaries.
Once established, CWD will mean changes for hunters and some of the businesses that cater to them, especially game processors. Collecting lymph nodes from deer and elk to be sent off for testing may become standard operating procedure for Montana hunters, who may also decide to wait a few weeks for the results before consuming the meat. That means you’ll still be on the hook for the bill at your game processor, even if the CWD test comes back positive.
If you’re equipped with your own hanging facility, and prefer letting the carcass age for a couple weeks, you can save yourself the trouble and cost of processing an infected animal. But most commercial facilities don’t have the kind of space needed to hang game for extended periods during the rush of hunting season.
It’s important to remember that there have been no documented cases of CWD jumping the species barrier from deer to humans. Still, research that includes feeding CWD infected deer meat to monkeys is incomplete, so caution remains prudent.
We do know that mad cow disease breached the species barrier and 177 in the United Kingdom have died since the condition was identified and extra protections were put in place in 1989. The Brits are more fond of the so-called fifth quarter, otherwise known as offal, than are Americans. Those bits — an acquired taste for some — are more likely to be infected than muscle tissue.
Both CWD and mad cow disease are caused by a malformed protein called a prion. The prions may be spread through saliva, urine and feces and can remain viable in the ground for years, which means there may still be future cases of CWD in New York.
There’s no word yet on whether Wyoming will respond to Montana’s request to close its elk feeding grounds, grounds that are almost certainly hot zones for CWD, or will be once the disease completes its westward march across that state.
One bit of good news. Despite first being detected in Wyoming deer in 1985, always fatal CWD doesn’t seem to have had a big impact on game populations. From 2007-2016, statewide deer harvest is down some, but only from 55,061 to 48,851 animals, and that’s with about 10,000 fewer hunters.
Let’s hope the impact on wild game herds won’t grow with time.