2017 is a hunting season that will live in infamy. State biologists identified CWD in Montana for the first time. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has finally been discovered in our own backyard. For years, Montana hunters have lived secluded from CWD. I have to admit I carried a sense of pride and relief believing our free ranging game animals to be pure and pristine.
It was inevitable that CWD would eventually make it’s way to Montana especially since Wyoming has long been an infected state, but seeing the first reported cases came with a feeling of dismay all the same. Montana’s hard stance against allowing the captive cervid industry may have delayed the infiltration of our ivory tower, but now the walls have been breeched.
We have CWD in Montana now. What do we do?
What is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)?
WD, or Chronic Wasting Disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). This classification of disease can be found in many different species. You may be familiar with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) also known as “mad cow disease.” Remember the mad cow disease scare? Remember the images of emaciated cattle stumbling deliriously around in a pen? Well, take the same basic disease and imagine it in deer and other cervids such as moose, elk, and reindeer. Not a pretty sight.
The disease is a prion disease. Basically a prion is a type of protein that we all have. The disease happens when normal prions become mutated and instead of functioning as a normal prion protein should it pretty much does what it wants. Studying the brains of these animals reveals tiny holes al throughout (hence the name spongeform). It also affects the rest of the nervous system including the animals spinal chord, nerves, and various glands.
It is always fatal, and it’s not a fun way to go. As the name suggests these animals literally “waste” away.
How does CWD spread?
ow CWD spreads is perhaps the most dismaying part of the disease. It is not completely understood how the disease is transmitted but the evidence points to both direct and indirect animal-to-animal contact. In other words it can be transmitted directly, such as two animals rubbing noses, or it can also be transmitted indirectly, such as two animals feeding or drinking in the same place even if the animals never have direct contact.
The disease can last for more than a year before the animal succombs. This means the infected animals are potentially spreading the disease to every water source, every licking branch, and every feeding area during that time. Because the disease is not immediately evident it is impossible to eliminate infected deer before they have a chance to contaminate their surroundings.
Can you eat CWD contaminated meat?
Here is the million-dollar question. What do you do if you shoot a deer or elk and it tests CWD positive? To eat or not to eat… that is the question. You will no doubt find opinions on both sides of the coin.
here are many hunters who cannot fathom the thought of wasting the meat from an animal that has been ethically harvested. These hunters will lean into the argument that no case of CWD passing to humans from contaminated meat has ever been documented.
This argument relies on what is known as the species barrier. The species barrier means that CWD has not been documented to jump between species by ingestion (eating the animal).
These hunters would also argue that hundreds if not thousands of people have eaten the meat with no adverse effects. Heck. You might have already eaten some infected game meat. Do you test every deer you kill? Does the fact that CWD isn’t present in you area mean it doesn’t exist? After all it’s not the first deer to contract CWD to test positive. By the time it’s discovered in a population it most certainly has affected more than one deer. So you may have already killed and consumed a CWD positive deer without knowing it.
Some people in this camp may also subscribe to the “CWD is a Myth” lie. This group believes CWD is a made up disease created by Anti’s, or the government to destroy our hunting culture and steal our way of life. This, of course, is nonsense.
Not to eat:
can sympathize with the dilemma that taking a CWD positive animal presents, to the ethical hunter who would never waste meat. This may turn out to be one of the greatest dilemmas of our generation of hunters. Still, the risk far outweighs the disappointment of disposing of the meat.
CWD has been transmitted to other animals by intracerebral injection including mice, ferrets, mink, squirrel monkeys, cattle, and goats according to the center for disease control. In another test with cattle they did not contract the disease when challenged orally. In other words when the disease was injected into their brain they contracted CWD. When it was swabbed in their mouth they did not contract the disease.
Of the many cases of CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or the human version of BSE/CWD) no link to consumption of CWD positive venison has ever been established. This should be encouraging but many researchers believe the sample size is still quite small. As the disease exists in areas for longer it increases the likelihood that it will overcome the species barrier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the risk “low” but advise hunter not to eat meat from game animals such as deer and elk.
While the risk is likely low, I can stomach the thought of a couple pounds of game meat going to waste easier than I can stomach the thought of watching one of my children’s brains waste away under the influence of CJD.
This is a decision each hunter must make for himself or herself. If you decide to eat meat from an animal carrying CWD it is your choice, but please be responsible and do not donate or feed that meat to others without giving them the same knowledge you have about the risks.
What can we do to stop CWD in Montana?
The effort to stop or slow the spread of CWD is a controversial topic among hunters. In most cases containment of the disease has involved greatly reducing deer populations in and around the area where the infected deer has been discovered. In some cases even eradication methods have been proposed.
It’s not hard to see why this is not popular with hunters. If you own a farm and you like to hunt deer on your back forty you don’t want your state’s wildlife management agency coming in and shooting all the deer on you property from a helicopter. You want those deer there for you and your family to enjoy.
And so the crux of the issue becomes; how much do we, as hunters, trust our state’s wildlife management agency. If you tend to mistrust government and authority you will be predisposed to mistrust their ability to do what’s right. And what about when what may be right for the state’s wildlife population is particularly hard on you.
It’s here that we find ourselves in Montana. With 6 cases of Mule Deer and One Whitetail Deer testing positive for CWD the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks is finishing it’s first Special Chronic Wasting Disease Hunt. Reading between the lines this initial hunt looks like a fact-finding mission. I would venture the goal is to assess how bad the infected area is and what further action is necessary. The harvest numbers are nowhere near eradication levels.
The path forward:
n some areas where CWD has been present for decades, contamination levels in Whitetail deer are approaching 50%. One out of two deer have will have CWD. This is a frightening possibility. Many of these state governments did has not received the support of hunters and landowners. In turn they were unable to take the drastic measures necessary to stop the spread of the disease.
Making our way forward as Montana hunters, let’s keep our children and grandchildren in mind. We are faced with a bleak scenario in the present, but we must do what is necessary to preserve a hunting for future generations. It’s true that efforts to stop CWD still involve some guesswork and we don’t have cure for CWD, but our best shot is to allow our Fish Wildlife & Parks to take the necessary actions to get the outbreak under control.
Montana is a latecomer to the CWD issue. There is plenty of information to be gleaned from states that have gone before. Their trial and error is a wealth of knowledge for Montana’s wildlife managers to draw from. As hunters we need to get educated about the issue. Be an engaged part of the process. But at the end of the day let’s work together to slow or eliminate the spread of CWD.