Writing about the great outdoors is something outdoor writers enjoy doing — myself included. Some subjects like chronic wasting disease or CWD, however, are very disheartening and garner a good bit of controversy as well. Like it or not CWD is here. It’s an integral part of our hunting heritage, and it’s probably not going away anytime soon.
CWD is similar to “mad cow” disease in cattle; it causes a spongy degeneration in the brains of infected animals. The disease results in abnormal behavior, loss of body functions and ultimately death. Most scientists believe the disease is caused by a prion or a protein that misfolds and accumulates in the brain thereby resulting in brain degeneration and death. The disease first showed up in 1967 in a captive herd of mule deer in Colorado. The disease is known to be spread through infected saliva and congregated deer greatly increase the potential for spreading the disease. Presently there is no antidote and herein lies some of the controversy surrounding the issue.
Much of the controversy had come about when a researcher, Dr. Frank Bastian, offered up a different theory concerning the cause of CWD. Without going into great detail, Dr. Bastian feels that CWD is caused by bacteria rather than a prion thus offering up possible treatments and a solution to the disease threatening our deer and elk. Most scientists are not on board with Bastian’s theory, and they do not feel the research is there to back it up.
Even more controversy erupted when the Pennsylvania Game Commission met with a lot of skepticism and backlash from the public over its plans to use U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters. The plan was to remove hundreds of deer in targeted areas in Blair and Bedford counties, but angry citizens and landowners brought an end to that plan at least for now. At present, the only seemingly effective tool for stopping or slowing the spread of CWD is removing large numbers of deer from areas where the disease is known to exist. Targeted removal of deer from infected areas does seem to be working. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, through the use of culling, has held male CWD infected deer below two percent in CWD zones.
There is more bad news to add to the already existing controversy. A CWD infected buck was discovered in a high-fence hunting preserve in Clearfield. That discovery is in Management Area 3, which covers a southern portion of our present elk range. Elk like deer have split hooves and can also be infected with CWD. Should the disease ever spread into the elk herd, it could be devastating both to hunting possibilities and tourism.
Presently it is not believed that CWD can be spread to humans, but even that has come under some scrutiny. It’s not recommended that you eat deer meat infected with CWD and I know I would not knowingly eat it myself. Where all this goes remains to be seen but like it or not deer numbers may have to be reduced in CWD infected areas to help slow the spread of the disease — and whether deer hunters or government sharpshooters do it may be a moot point.