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Chronic Wasting Disease by Ray Penny

If you hunt deer or elk in America today, it’s time to confront Chronic Wasting Disease.  Though many of us in unaffected states have enjoyed the luxury of ignorant bliss, the rapid spread of CWD and new state regulations to match that spread, make it impossible to bury your head in the proverbial sand any longer.  Even if you’re still fortunate enough to live in a “CWD free” state, odds are that new CWD regulations being passed across the country will have an effect on the way you hunt.

First, let’s cover the basics on CWD.  Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy which affects whitetail and mule deer, elk, moose and caribou.  CWD occurs when an animal’s body begins to mis-fold a particular protein called a prion.  Over time, this mis-folding affects the animal’s nervous system, and turns the animals brain into a spongy mush.  Over time, the animal will die as a result of the brain deterioration.  CWD is the same type of disease as Mad Cow, and  Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

CWD is highly contagious, as these prions are shed by an animal through their bodily fluids.  Prions are nearly impossible to destroy – they must be heated to over 1500 degrees in order to break down, and as a result, remain present in the soil and the environment almost indefinitely.  Prions can be passed from deer to deer when they rub noses or eat from the same pile of corn, however they can also be transmitted to a new animal who sticks its nose into an apple tree that was visited by an affected animal several weeks before.  A recent study in the Journal of General Virology found that CWD is passed from a cow elk to its calf 80% of the time.

Perhaps the worst part about CWD is the fact that it is untreatable.  Because the disease is caused by a protein and not a vaccine or a bacteria, there is no available vaccine and no way to treat an affected animal.  Cervids who are affected by CWD stand a near 100% chance of dying from it, unless they are killed by something higher up the food chain, first. 

Though there no documented cases of people contracting the disease, many states are starting to enact strict regulations to prevent the spread of the disease.  My home state of Oklahoma is one of the newest states to enact such laws.  Though Oklahoma currently has no recorded cases of CWD, the Department of Wildlife Conservation is eager to ensure it does not come to our deer and elk herds.  As a result, the ODWC passed a new set of administrative regulations which prohibits the importation of any part of the spinal column of a deer or elk, and no part of a skull unless it has been completely cleaned of “all tissue.” 

The penalty for violating this new regulation is only a $100 dollar fine, however the regulation does allow a game warden to permanently seize your deer or elk skull when the citation is written.  Though a $100 dollar fine doesn’t seem like much, losing that 400 inch elk you’ve been after for the last decade is going to hurt far worse.

Oklahoma’s regulation is difficult for hunters like myself.  Though the regulation would allow the importation of a cape and skull plate with antlers, the full skull must not be brought into the State unless is has been completely cleaned of any and all tissue.  This includes the eye sockets, nasal cavities, and brain.  Anyone who has ever tried to bleach a skull themselves knows this process takes hours and a lot of manual labor.  Still, violating the new rules could leave you without a trophy of any kind.

Oklahoma isn’t the only state to enact regulations of this type.  Currently, more than half of US States possess some sort of regulation which bans either the importation or exportation of certain cervid carcass parts.  Even if your home state doesn’t currently possess regulations, you could violate another states regulations by taking your trophy home, or even simply passing through with those antlers in the bed of your pick-up truck.

If you plan on hunting in another state this season, consider finding a local taxidermist who can perform your work for you.  The cost of shipping an elk mount may be expensive, but it will be much less difficult in the long run than having to look at a big empty space on your wall where your trophy antlers should be hanging. Also, spend time researching the regulations in your state, the state you plan to visit, and the states you’ll travel through.  CWD can be catastrophic to cervid populations and its time we all did our part to limit the spread of this awful disease.

AUTHOR RAYMOND E. PENNY, Jr. An avid outdoorsman, Raymond E. Penny, Jr. is an associate with Hall Estill law firm headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ray focuses his practice in the litigation arena with a niche practice and expertise in Wildlife and Conservation.

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