For those of us in the North Country who hunt deer and eat venison, concerns about chronic wasting disease just got real with the confirmation of this incurable disease in a wild deer in northern …
For those of us in the North Country who hunt deer and eat venison, concerns about chronic wasting disease just got real with the confirmation of this incurable disease in a wild deer in northern Crow Wing County.
Up until late February, hunters in northeastern Minnesota had a sense that CWD was a concern someplace else, like in southeastern Minnesota, where isolated pockets of the disease had popped up in recent years. Most of us were aware of the pervasive nature of CWD in southern and central Wisconsin, but it’s always easy to ignore when it’s a problem in another state, and when northwestern Wisconsin counties were still largely free of the disease.
That sense of security is now gone. “This is absolutely a big deal,” says Michelle Carstensen, the DNR’s wildlife health group leader, during an interview with me last week.
As Carstensen noted, it remains to be seen if this single deer, found dead not far from Crosby, is an isolated case or is a sign that CWD has taken root within the wild deer population in that area. The dead deer was found less than half a mile from a deer, or cervid, farm which has had several positive CWD tests in recent years, so it’s entirely possible that this is a case of transmission from the captive population to a single doe.
The DNR plans to work with adjacent landowners to remove and test as many deer as possible in about a two-mile radius of the spot where the dead doe was found. That removal and testing effort could already be underway by the time you read this. We should know test results from that effort quite soon.
There’s reason to hope that the positive test is an isolated case. The DNR has tested nearly 9,000 deer in that area over the past few years out of concern that the deer farm in question could pose a transmission risk to the wild herd in the area. But until last month, they had yet to see a positive result.
Some folks, who aren’t that familiar with CWD, may wonder what all the fuss is about. CWD is a big deal because it’s fatal to deer and can begin to impact populations if it becomes well-established. What’s worse is that there are scientific studies that strongly suggest that eating CWD-infected meat could lead to similar symptoms and eventual death in humans. A recent Canadian study fund that macaque monkeys became infected through the ingestion of CWD-tainted meat. Findings like that have prompted the World Health Organization and other entities to issue an advisory against the human consumption of meat from CWD-infected animals.
The implications of this are potentially devastating. In parts of Wisconsin today, CWD is believed to infect as much as half of the deer population. Once this thing gets out of control, you really can’t put the genie back in the bottle. While many Wisconsin hunters have, to date, ignored the risk of eating infected venison, that could change if more research confirms the risks to humans, or if hunters start to exhibit the symptoms of CWD infection, which can take several years in humans.
What happens if the public perception of your deer herd shifts from a great source of healthy, organic meat, to a potential source of deadly infection? There have been fears that the spread of CWD could all but wipe out the deer hunting industry in many states if additional research confirms the risk of eating infected meat.
Hunters might think they could avoid this risk by not eating deer that show the symptoms of CWD, such as general emaciation. Yet the outward symptoms of CWD infection typically don’t show up in deer for one-to-three years after initial infection, even though the animal could be loaded with the disease vector, known as a prion. Within a few months of infection, however, a deer begins to shed more prions through feces, urine, and saliva.
Prions are scary little things, described by the Centers for Disease Control as “abnormal pathogenic agents that are transmissible.” These things are not alive in the traditional sense, so they really can’t be killed. You can boil them, drop them in acid or fry them in a nuclear reactor and they’ll be just fine. Cooking your venison burger to well done is certainly no solution.
Prions kill by inducing a certain type of protein found in our cells to fold in an irregular way, killing the cells. The cells most affected are generally concentrated in the brain, which is why prion disease symptoms are focused on the neurological system. These diseases go by various names, including “mad cow” disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease when it infects humans.
The bottom line is you don’t want these things anywhere near the meat you plan to feed to yourself or your family.
Which is likely one reason that the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has reacted to the latest discovery with such alarm. At the organization’s Feb. 23 annual meeting in Grand Rapids, the members voted to support a number of legislative initiatives to try to slow the spread of CWD. Those initiatives include requiring double fencing around all cervid, farms, mandatory depopulation of all cervids on a farm with a positive CWD test, a moratorium on the licensing of any new cervid farms and a voluntary buy-out of existing farms.
Most of the MDHA’s recommendations focus on cervid farms, since they have been linked in most cases to CWD outbreaks.
But Carstensen notes that hunters have a role to play as well, particularly those hunters who hunt out-of-state in areas where CWD is well-established. That includes Wisconsin, Iowa, and many western states. Hunters who bring deer from those areas home with them are potentially bringing prions that can infect deer in their area. You might think tossing some bones on the back forty from a Colorado deer that you butchered doesn’t pose a risk, but you’d be wrong. Those remains could well contain prions, which can then enter the soil, where they will continue to exist indefinitely. And recent studies have shown that plants can take up prions through their roots, which means the deer that comes along and feeds on grass or shrubs near those bones you tossed five years ago could very well become infected. Keep in mind, these things don’t seem to die. They just cycle through the food web indefinitely.
For years, we had the luxury here in the North Country to think CWD wasn’t a risk factor for us. But as this latest discovery shows all too plainly, we are not immune.