Dr. Krysten Schuler is a wildlife disease ecologist working for Cornell University and is focused on the health of wildlife populations and associations with human and domestic animal activities and diseases. Dr. Schuler works on conserving free-ranging species for current and future generations use and enjoyment. This involves a multi-disciplinary approach involving risk analysis, field studies, human dimensions, and laboratory experiments. Dr. Schuler was just named to the Board of Directors for the National Deer Alliance and is an expert on Chronic Wasting Disease.
Krysten, we were just at a conference together put together by the TRCP and we were talking about the“New Normal” in regards to CWD. Can you tell our readers a little about what CWD is and how it affects deer and other cervid?
CWD is an always fatal disease of deer, elk, moose, and reindeer/caribou. It is caused by a prion, which is a misfolded protein that cannot be broken down by the body’s natural defenses. Therefore, it builds up and causes brain cells to die. Prions are different than the bacteria and viruses that normally cause disease. It is much more difficult to disinfect, and there are no vaccines or treatment for infected animals.
Over the last decade CWD has been growing across our country, What steps are game departments taking to prevent the spread of CWD?
Many state and provincial agencies are implementing herd management, hunting regulations, and education activities to try to prevent the introduction of CWD if it’s not in their state yet or limit the spread if it’s already there. These actions vary across states so it’s important to check the regulations of the state that you are hunting in and your home state (if they are different) to make sure you know all the latest info.
We know that CWD is transmitted through bodily fluids that deer transfer in locations where deer congregate including baiting sites. Some states have begun to ban baiting and feeding of deer, do you believe this is an important step in the containment process for CWD?
CWD outbreaks require two steps: 1) introduction of prions into the area and 2) transmission to wild cervids. Congregating deer around baiting sites increases the probability of disease transmission because of larger numbers of animals using that area. These sites can become “hot spots” for disease because prions bind to soil particles and remain infectious for years. They can also be taken up into plant tissues and still cause disease.
When a hunter shoots a deer that may or may not have CWD, what steps can a hunter take to protect themselves and assist in the prevention of CWD?
There are a few things: 1) Hunters are one of our best disease surveillance tools – we have more eyes in the woods during hunting season than any other time. Hunters should report any deer acting abnormally to their wildlife agency. 2) It’s always a good idea to wear gloves when handling the carcass to keep yourself protected. Disposing of carcass waste in the trash where it will end up in a landfill is a good way to minimize potential transmission to other animals. 3) Know the regulations. Many agencies are moving to only allowing deboned meat, capes, cleaned skull plates, hides, and canines to be imported from outside their state. It would be a shame to lose your deer if you are bringing it home improperly. 4) If your animal does test positive for CWD and you’ve already got the venison in the freezer, contact your state wildlife agency to find out the best methods for disposal. The CDC recommends no one knowingly consume CWD-positive animals.
If hunters are hunting in states and counties where CWD has been found, should they be testing the meat they harvest from deer they have shot?
Unfortunately, there is no CWD “food safety” test available for venison. The testing is done to determine whether the deer has CWD prions detected or not detected. Samples are collected from the retropharngeal lymph nodes and brainstem, which are tissues that have the highest concentration of prions earliest in the infection. If I were hunting in a state that had previously found CWD, I would definitely get my deer tested.
Where can hunters go to get deer tested for CWD? If you are interested in having your animal tested, contact your wildlife agency to get information. They may direct you to the state’s veterinary diagnostic lab. Availability and costs vary by state so this is something you want to do weeks before your hunt so you are prepared when you are processing the carcass. You will need to cut off the head, leaving a few inches of neck. Cut off the antlers (or skull plate) if you want to keep them. Most labs will not be able to return antlers.
Are you currently testing all of the deer meat that your family is consuming?
We take a few deer off our property each year to fill the freezer. I typically pull the lymph nodes on the tailgate of my truck for testing because I can do it quickly after sampling thousands of heads. But it’s just as easy to take the head off with a sharp knife and some tree loppers.
Where can hunters go to learn more about CWD?
The CWD Alliance at http://cwd-info.org/ is one of my most visited websites. There is a lot of good information there. You can always go to your state’s wildlife agency website. The key thing is to prepare before your hunt so you’re armed with the knowledge you need.
What steps as a concerned hunter can we do politically and financially to assist in the fight against CWD?
Our elected officials are the trustees of our public trust resources, like wildlife. Our wildlife agencies are the managers of those trust resources. We need to make sure these folks hear loud and clear that the public is concerned about CWD and wants them to take action. A lot of other organizations, like NDA, are getting involved to help the cause. Supporting organizations that take CWD seriously and provide funding for communication or research would also be beneficial.