Outdoor Report

When CWD hits close to home

Posted 11/29/19

My harvested deer, a white-tailed doe, tested positive for chronic wasting disease. The news was saddening, ending my hunt on a sour note.

Notice arrived six days after the hunt: “This email …

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Outdoor Report

When CWD hits close to home

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My harvested deer, a white-tailed doe, tested positive for chronic wasting disease. The news was saddening, ending my hunt on a sour note.

Notice arrived six days after the hunt: “This email is to inform you that your harvested animal tested positive for CWD. Please use [the enclosed link] for your full laboratory report and notification letter.”

I was pretty giddy about the harvest. There were no signs of disease — she looked strong and beautiful and my shot was true. I was glad to have the sample tested. I wanted to know.

Lovell Habitat and Access Biologist Eric Shorma with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department was running a check station in Powell on Fair Street. He patiently showed me how to gather samples for future reference, making the chore look easy. I’m sure he gets lots of practice; the Game and Fish has intensified its efforts to track CWD in the Big Horn Basin, running extra stations in the area. As of Nov. 8, more than 3,414 samples had been taken across the state this year, with 353 of the deer testing positive for the disease. More are still being checked.

“We didn’t turn anybody away that asked for a sample to be taken,” said Scott Edberg, deputy chief of the wildlife division.

The number of samples tested isn’t significantly higher than previous years, but this season, the Game and Fish narrowed its focus to get an accurate picture of areas of concern. Herds in the Big Horn Basin are in that group. The CWD test is free to hunters, but the department pays $32 per test. The price does not include localized costs associated with testing, such as personnel time (staffing check stations for example), fuel or shipping costs.

I hunted south of Deaver in Hunt Area 122. A rancher was kind enough to allow me a day on his land and helped direct me to beautiful area where he thought I could be successful. I saw several deer in the morning, but waited through the day for the best opportunity. The last thing I want is for my prey to suffer because of a bad shot.

I had to read the email twice before the news sank in. I’ve written about CWD for more than a decade, but this was one of the first times the disease really hit home. I’ve seen a deer in the final stages of its life due to CWD while living out east. The disease was rare in Iowa at the time. I remember feeling sick to my stomach, watching it struggle before a game warden put it down.

I talked to Corey Class, wildlife management coordinator for the Game and Fish. He said something that, sadly, made a lot of sense to me. “It’s not real until [hunters] or someone they know get a positive,” Class said.

No matter how much news there is out there about the disease, the fact that the Game and Fish still had to go to extra effort to get the samples they needed is a shame. Everyone should be concerned about the spread of this disease. I’m not pointing fingers — this was the first test I’ve had done.

Class suggests postponing processing until after test results are known, but by the time the results arrived I had already consumed the inner loins.

I ate them alone. Lightly sautéed in butter and garlic and served with eggs and toast, I savored each bite. Had I known the deer was carrying a disease, every mouthful would have been with the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation on my mind.

The CDC report reads: “To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people. However, some animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to certain types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk. These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people. Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain.”

Not very appetizing, is it? I try to listen to scientists. I also watch the news. The prevalence of the disease is increasing in Wyoming, seemingly being found in new hunt areas every time biologists look. And it’s not just deer: All ungulates are at risk, including elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose.

CWD was found in a harvested moose in Montana last month — the first ever in the state. Can you imagine drawing a “once-in-a-lifetime” tag and losing the meat to disease?

A part of me is glad my doe won’t suffer through the ravages of the disease. But another part wonders how my future hunts will be influenced by this experience.

In a discussion about my experience with outfitter and county commissioner Lee Livingston, he said he hasn’t seen a decrease in clients, concerned about CWD. Yet, the majority of his clients “are wanting to go home with meat,” Livingston said. Many are from out of state.

The biggest change to his business is the way states now handle the transfer of meat across borders, he said. Otherwise, “currently, there’s nothing with CWD that has impacted my business,” Livingston said.

That, too, can change. Prevalence rates in some areas of the state are very high. Hunt Area 164, near Worland, has seen rates as high as 40-50 percent. The disease takes years to kill a deer, but it’s always fatal. It’s a pretty horrible outcome for animals infected, Class said. “In the end [infected ungulates] are walking in circles, drooling and starving.”

Livingston admits that reduced herd sizes and management changes reflecting the loss of hunting opportunities would affect business. The Game and Fish budget is tied directly to the sale of licenses as well. It, too, could face shortfalls if herd sizes decline dramatically. Outdoor sports enthusiasts pay for almost everything the Game and Fish does, including conservation efforts of all wildlife species — from bears to bats.

It’s time to get serious about CWD.

How can you help? When Game and Fish ask for samples, go out of your way to provide them. When you process your large game animals, make sure the carcasses end up in the landfill, not at the end of the lane and especially not in a different area from where it was harvested. Let’s not help spread this disease.

“Hunters are responding to CWD in one of two ways,” Edberg said. “They’re either not concerned at all or showing an increased level of concern and anxiety of the disease, including the possible transmission to humans.”

There is much still to learn. Game and Fish Commissioner Mike Schmid, who has a seat on the CWD working group, said it well. “One of things that’s fascinating, but hard for me to get my head around. … For a disease that’s been around for 50 or 60 years, we still don’t know a hell of a lot.”

People have told me I could probably still eat my CWD deer, but I’m going to listen to scientists and pass on consuming the meat — despite the meals being an important part of my family’s outdoor tradition. I also won’t quit hunting. There are far more important aspects of hunting than harvest. And I intend to be more proactive in my attempts to follow research, sharing the news when possible and support wildlife managers as they make difficult decisions in the future.

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