Don’t take a risk with CWD

Posted 9/15/20

While humans have been dealing with the spread of a disruptive disease in 2020, the region’s deer populations continue to be hammered by a deadly threat: chronic wasting disease (CWD).

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Don’t take a risk with CWD


While humans have been dealing with the spread of a disruptive disease in 2020, the region’s deer populations continue to be hammered by a deadly threat: chronic wasting disease (CWD).

To date, CWD has posed no threat to people — and we would strongly encourage hunters to help keep it that way, by taking precautions when they head into the field.

In hunts all across Wyoming this fall, sportsmen and women will inevitably harvest numerous deer, elk and other cervids infected with the fatal disease. In some hunt areas within the Big Horn Basin, for example, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department estimates that up to half of the deer are infected. It’s an ugly ailment that slowly saps the life from its victims. It may take up to a year before deer and elk begin showing symptoms, like dramatic weight loss, stumbling and listlessness, the CDC says. But once infected, there’s no treatment or vaccine. Assuming the animal doesn’t die of something else first, the prion disease always proves fatal, as the infected animal wastes away.

The disease is relatively widespread, being detected across roughly half of the U.S. and in other countries. Each year, CWD is found in new parts of Wyoming. Last year, Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik told Congress that, when the disease is widely prevalent, it can damage the health and viability of wildlife populations; Nesvik’s counterpart in West Virginia described CWD as “the single greatest threat to hunting and conservation in America today.”

The only good news is that there have been zero human cases of CWD and, according to the Wyoming Department of Health, no proof that people can contract the disease.

“However, animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals,” the Department of Health says. “These experimental studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to humans and suggest that it is important to prevent exposures to CWD.”

There are prion diseases already within the human population, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and a variant of “mad cow disease,” that can come from eating cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Fortunately, those diseases remain extremely rare, but it seems wise to take steps to reduce the risks of another one jumping to humans.

Evidence suggests that CWD is transmitted through the saliva, urine, feces or even the carcasses of infected animals, the Game and Fish says. Ingestion, the department says, is the most likely route of exposure — which means it’s just not a good idea to eat the meat of a CWD-infected animal.

The Game and Fish strongly encourages hunters to send in a sample from their harvested deer or elk to be tested for CWD and suggests they consider quartering and freezing the meat from their harvest until the results come back. Without testing, it’s hard to know if an animal is infected.

While a deer or elk will show obvious signs of illness in the latter stages of CWD — weight loss, reluctance to move, excessive salivation, droopy ears, increased drinking and urinating, lethargy — the Game and Fish says animals may exhibit no symptoms in the early stages.

“... The majority of CWD positive animals that are harvested appear completely normal and healthy,” the department warns.

Game and Fish advice includes: Don’t harvest or eat wild animals that appear sick, wear rubber or latex gloves when field dressing an animal (followed by hand and instrument washing), don’t touch the brain and spinal cord tissues any more than necessary, bone out the meat when butchering and disinfect utensils with a bleach solution to kill lingering prions.

Taking a series of inconvenient steps — and potentially having to toss seemingly good meat into the garbage bin — might seem unnecessary, but if there’s anything that 2020 has taught us, it’s that new diseases are far better prevented than combatted.

While there remain many unknowns surrounding the exact origin of the novel coronavirus, there’s been some theorizing that COVID-19 may have stemmed from the consumption of bats or other exotic animals in China; other serious pathogens have also spread from animals to people.

There’s no indication that CWD would ever become a world-disrupting disease like COVID-19, but let’s do everything we can to minimize the likelihood of it jumping to the human population. Please get your deer, elk and moose tested before eating your game meat.


Get your game tested

Hunters can have harvested deer, elk or moose sampled at any game check station, at the Cody regional Game and Fish office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or by calling 307-527-7125 to schedule an appointment. Local hunters can also use head drop barrels located at Northwest College in Powell, on the south side of the Science and Math Building at Sixth and Division streets. Barrels also are available at the headquarters of Yellowtail Wildlife Management area near Lovell.

An additional option for hunters is to call the Northwest College CWD hotline at 307-754-6018 to schedule a time during regular business hours for a sample to be collected.

For more information about CWD in Wyoming, visit: www.bit.ly/33rBpuD.