With the big game season being strong across the country, hunters need to be aware of precautions against chronically wasteful diseases, whether they are hunting in or out of the state.
Chronic garbage disease is here to stay. By May 2020, free-range deer, moose, and moose have tested positive for the disease in at least 24 states and two Canadian provinces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Are you hunting near a CWD positive area? This map was updated from September 2020. Image Credit: USGS
The disease is certainly common in areas that have not yet been tested and continues to spread its deadly prions as animals migrate and carcasses are moved across borders. Understanding how this disease works is equivalent to preventing it from spreading. But if you don't understand the deep danger of protein misfolding, you can still prevent the spread of CWD in your area.
Here are five specific ways you can help stop the spread of chronically wasted diseases and protect our cervids and their landscapes for future generations.
How to prevent CWD from spreading
Volunteer or send your animal for CWD sampling
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz2dcOaaANw (/ embed)
In some areas, all animals harvested must be tested for chronic waste diseases. Many other states choose to have free (or sometimes paid) voluntary sampling on an individual basis. It is imperative that states have as much information as possible in order to understand and prevent the spread of CWD.
The head of your animal – whether male or female – is the sampling station for chronic waste diseases. Tests use either the retropharyngeal lymph nodes or the brainstem, and states like Montana have CWD test kits where you can do it yourself or test stations where a fish and game worker can do it for you.
The above video from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks shows how you can extract the lymph nodes yourself. However, contact your local fish and game department to determine your testing options.
Bon your meat in the field and properly dispose of your carcass
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNfPzfiRAJc (/ embed)
If you're new to boning your meat, don't be intimidated. It's a relatively straightforward process, with much of your processing work being done on-site before taking your meat home or to your local butcher shop. In the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership's video above, MeatEater's Janis Putelis describes how to properly boning your animals in areas with chronically decaying diseases.
You should avoid cutting bones, the spine, or the brain while deboning meat. You also want to properly dispose of the carcass. In some areas the carcasses must be left in the field and preferably buried.
If you're bringing a whole animal off the field, some states, like Wisconsin, offer carcass disposal facilities. Others urge you to bag carcass parts such as eyes, brain, spleen, lymph glands, bones and spinal cord material and dispose of them at your local landfill, where the carcass can be safely treated without further contaminating the environment.
Clean your skull for safe and legal transportation
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adPnsRwXIhw (/ embed)
"Gone are the days when full skulls or spinal cord material were brought home." – Randy Newberg, Hunter
In many states, it is illegal for hunters to move brain matter or the spine across state borders. 25 states have specific laws on the books that make carcass transportation illegal in one way or another, and a detailed breakdown of state regulations as of April 2020 can be found here.
It is a tried and tested method for any cervid to simply leave the carcass where it lies with the spine intact after the meat is boned. Since many hunters take the heads of consecrated animals, you must ensure that the skull is free of brain tissue before shipping. Randy Newberg's video above shows you how to do this yourself.
If you have plans to take a skull across state lines and don't want to make it yourself, reach out to the local taxidermists who can do the job for you, whichever way works best for you. Shoulder brackets, Euro brackets, and skull caps are all options for bringing your hard-earned antlers home intact.
Report sick animals to the local fish and game department
White-tailed buck, sick with CWD; Photo credit: Mike Hopper, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism
Deer, elk, and moose infected with CWD can look healthy for up to 5 years or possibly longer while infected with the disease. But at the end of this always fatal infection, things get really, really terrible for our Cervid friends.
If you see or shoot an animal that appears to be sick, avoid handling it. Capture pictures and waypoints whenever possible. Then report it to the fish and game department closest to the location.
Avoid using scents, bait, and bait to prevent the spread of CWD
Many scents and baits that hunters use come from populations of captured cervids. This carries the great risk of introducing a chronic disease in areas where it has never been before.
Deer urine or glandular by-products can carry the infectious prions, and the human benefit can spread these infectious proteins into the environment. Once prions are in the landscape, it is next to impossible to remove them. Try different hunting methods that do not involve dragging animals via cervid by-products.
Deer baiting is common in many areas, but it can bring together animals that may not meet in the field. Saliva, urine and feces can easily transmit chronic waste diseases from one animal to another. Adjust your hunting practices beyond baiting to prevent the further unnatural spread of CWD.
Final thoughts: CWD, people and the future of our cervids
Cindy Stites with her 2019 Montana Mule Doe; Photo credit: Lindsey Mulcare
There is no proven evidence that chronic waste diseases can be transmitted to humans. But prion diseases like mad cow disease have crossed the species line in the recent past. While you are highly unlikely to infect yourself or loved ones with CWD, it is best to take personal precautions when handling and eating deer, elk, and elk.
Wear gloves, be careful not to ingest or contaminate meat with spinal or brain matter, and wait for your animal to be tested to determine if you feel safe eating the meat in your freezer.
It is up to all deer, elk and elk hunters to be good stewards of the animals we hunt. Know the rules and be prepared with the right information for the areas you want to hunt this season.