Chronic Wasting Disease: What You Need to Know
By Steve Lightfoot
Unless you’re hunting in one of the few areas where chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been discovered, you probably don’t know about this disease. Here’s what you need to know about CWD and what hunters and landowners can do to help minimize the impact on Texas deer herds.
CWD is a progressive, fatal brain condition that affects some species of cervids (including, deer, elk, and moose). There is no vaccine or cure. An animal may carry the disease for years without outward indication, but in later stages of the disease, signs may include listlessness, lowering of the head, weight loss, repetitive walking in set patterns, and lack of responsiveness.
CWD is not new; it was first documented in Colorado in 1967 and since then has been ‘found in two Canadian provinces and nearly half of the states in the United States. It is almost impossible to eradicate once it becomes established. But what we can do is manage the disease and minimize the risk of it spreading to both wild and captive deer.
The first case of CWD in Texas was discovered in 2012 in a free-ranging mule deer in an isolated area of far West Texas. Hunters in that area are now required to have their deer (white-tailed and mule deer) tested for CWD. The good news is that TPWD monitoring programs indicate that the disease doesn’t appear to have spread or increased in prevalence. Another infected mule deer was killed last year by a hunter in the northern Panhandle, and the testing of hunter harvested white-tailed and mule deer could be mandatory for the 2016-17 season in the area surrounding the site where the deer was killed.
The first cases of CWD in Texas white-tailed deer were found in four deer-breeding facilities in 2015 as a result of routine disease monitoring, which is required by TPWD regulations. Significant disease-management challenges arose after it was found that there was widespread movement of deer between the infected breeding facilities and numerous other breeding facilities scattered across the state, and released into the wild. Increased surveillance was needed in those areas to ensure that the disease had not spread.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regulates all unnatural movement of deer with several permits, including Triple T permits (trap, transfer, and transplant), DMPs (deer management permits), and Deer Breeder permits. To address the threat of additional, preventable disease transmission that unnatural movement of deer poses, and to protect the health of the state’ s four million free-ranging deer, TPWD has worked collaboratively with a broad group of deer stakeholders to establish new CWD testing requirements for permittees.
Disease experts believe continued hunting to maintain appropriate deer density levels is important for managing CWD in these infected areas. Hunters also play a significant role in helping TPWD determine where the disease is so that management actions can be implemented. Last year, hunters provided more than 8,000 samples for CWD testing from deer they had harvested. This sampling effort is conducted at no cost to hunters and ensures that CWD is not in the free-ranging deer populations throughout most of Texas. Information and details about voluntary sample collection this season is available online at the CWD informational page.
CWD poses no known threat to humans, according to the World Health Organization. Because it’s possible that CWD can be spread through infected carcasses, it is recommended to leave viscera, brain, and spinal tissue at the harvest site, especially in areas where CWD is known to occur. Disposal in a Class 1 landfill is also an option. Deer harvested from areas being managed for CWD should be processed individually and separately from other carcasses, with the packaged meat retained until test results are received. More tips and precautions are available as a downloadable PDF.
Steve Lightfoot is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s news manager and primary media spokesperson on wildlife-related issues. He is a lifelong hunter, seventh-generation Texan, and past president of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association.