Wildlife officials urge caution during deer hunt because of wasting disease

Posted December 7, 2016

The recent discovery of two deer with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in southeastern Minnesota has raised concerns for wildlife officials in western Wisconsin.

Both of the deer that tested positive were males harvested within a mile of each other in Fillmore County near Lanesboro during firearm season in mid-November.

“It’s only a matter of time before it’s here.. I’m very worried,” said Brad Peterson, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officer for Pierce County. More counties in Wisconsin have CWD restrictions in place than don’t, said Peterson.

“The (Mississippi) river is not a barrier for deer,” Peterson said.

CWD is a fatal neurological disease. Affecting deer, elk and moose, it causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals, resulting in emaciation, excessive drinking and urination, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions, and death. The known CWD infectious agent, or prion, is very resistant to destruction by normal processes such as washing with disinfectant soap and water. The prion is only destroyed by incineration temperatures in excess of 1,800 degrees and can remain in the soil, water or on other materials for an indefinite time, according to Peterson and the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance.

The Wisconsin DNR began monitoring the state’s wild white-tailed deer for CWD in 1999. In all, 43 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have been affected by cases of CWD. It was first discovered in 2002 in Dane County, said Peterson.

In Wisconsin, 3,131 CWD positive free-ranging white-tailed deer have been identified since 2001. Of the 72 counties, 18 currently have CWD detected in the wild deer herd.

The disease has not been found in Pierce or St. Croix counties, but the Wisconsin DNR lists Polk County as CWD affected.

No additional deer have tested positive for the disease from samples collected this fall in southeastern Minnesota. Nearly one-third of all deer harvested during the 2016 southeastern Minnesota’s firearm season were tested. Only two of the 2,866 deer tested returned positive results, according to the Minnesota DNR.

“CWD has increased. It has been more prevalent in males. It went from single digits percentiles up to 30 percent now. It is hard to control,” said Peterson. “I don’t know how to control it; nobody knows how to control.”

Although there is no proof that the disease can be transferred to humans, Peterson encourages hunters to be cautious anyway and follow the DNR’s guidelines for processing deer and to get deer tested.

“I have been hunting and processing my own deer since I was 10 years old,” said Steve Watters, the meat production plant manager at UW-River Falls. “I am more concerned with getting in a car accident on my way to hunt or getting shot while deer hunting, than I am of CWD.”

He added: “I am not afraid of eating or processing deer. I don’t want to belittle the risk of someone getting sick from CWD, but we just don’t have enough information about CWD and we should be more concerned about other things, like kids texting and driving.”

However, Watters said, if the deer doesn’t look right — don’t eat it. If when during processing deer meat there isn’t any fat, he recommends not eating it as that can be a sign of illness.

Watters used to teach classes in how to process deer meat.

“I don’t teach the classes anymore because the information isn’t clear on transmission of CWD,” he said. But that hasn’t stopped him from hunting and eating deer.

“There are important things to do in processing,” said Bonnie Walters, a professor of animal and food science at UW-River Falls. “There is no evidence that says that someone can get something comparable to CWD. In sheep it’s called scrapie and in beef it’s called mad cow disease. In humans its called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. They are all caused by a prion, which is a protein.”

She added: “Eating the meat, from a food safety standpoint — it’s safe to eat. It is passed from nerve tissue, not the muscle.”

Both the DNR and Watters recommend the following procedures when processing deer meat:

The DNR is developing disease management strategies to protect the state’s deer herd and encourage hunting.

“The worst thing that could happen,” Peterson said, “is people will stop hunting.”