Brett Roper

About five years ago I wrote my only article that received a negative response on The Herald Journal’s opinion page. That article was on Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, and the group that penned the response represented individuals who raised deer and elk behind fences. In the five years since that article, this disease has become an even bigger problem.

Chronic Wasting Disease is a fatal transmittable disease that affects North American deer, elk and moose. This disease is spread by contact with infected animals or shed cells (e.g. droppings). Currently, wild deer, elk and/or moose with CWD are found in 24 states and Canada. The spread of this disease in our region has come as animals have radiated out from where it was first detected in eastern Colorado. As of June, this disease has been detected in seven counties in Utah (but not Cache, Rich or Box Elder), all but one county in Wyoming, and no counties in Idaho. In the west, the spread has been aided by the movement of wild and human reared animals. In the east, however, most the centers of disease detection can be traced back to importing domestic deer and elk.

The primary difficulty with controlling CWD is there is no test that can detect the disease in live animals. Combine this with the 18 months to five years it takes this disease to incubate, and it can be easy to unknowingly move an affected animal. In wild populations, infection rates are generally low but can be as high as 10%. Based on my quick review, less than one hundred of the thousands of deer tested in Utah have tested positive for CWD.

A big threat to the region’s hunters is that with an increasing prevalence of the disease, populations of deer and elk may decline. This may not be an issue when it comes to elk, whose numbers are currently expanding, but it could reduce the number of permits for mule deer as they are already facing a myriad of other threats.

The National Herd Certification Program was put in place to reduce the movement of infected domestic deer and elk. For the most part this program has been a failure. The long incubation time of this disease and lack of a live animal tests, means many diseased animals have been shipped from herds certified free of CWD. The simplest solution to reduce the spread of this disease is to limit long-range transportation of deer and elk. While I don’t want to undermine people’s livelihood, the potential loss of monies and jobs related to hunting free-ranging deer and elk could be much more costly than fewer high fence hunts. This is especially true in Utah, where auction permits and cooperative wildlife management units provide plenty of high success hunting opportunities.

This is not to say that owners of high fence hunting operations are the only ones responsible for the spread of this disease. Building homes on winter range and feeding animals over the course of the season increases the likelihood this disease will spread. Even people who used bait to attract animals for hunting or photographs could play a role in the spread of CWD. One behavior people don’t think about are using scent products to attract deer. As this scent often includes urine from farmed animals, it is possible it could come from an infected animal.

With the spread of CWD, there are limitations on transporting deer and elk carcasses across state lines. I hunt Ungulates in Wyoming, often on short trips, when I expect to bring the animals back to Utah the day I shoot one. Right now, if I shoot a deer in all but one county in that state, Utah regulations indicate I should bone out the animal and clean the skull before I return home (the same rules apply if you live in Idaho).

Right now, deer and elk hunter should follow Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources (and other states) recommendations when they harvest an animal and; 1) wear rubber gloves when cleaning big game, 2) bone out the meat, 3) avoid handling or eating soft tissues (such as brain), and 4) wash and disinfect hands and surfaces used to clean the animal. With Utah, Idaho and Wyoming’s bow season just around the corner, spending a little time thinking about how you might address this issue is just one more step in preparing for a new season.

Brett Roper is a fisheries biologist for the Forest Service who has been lucky enough to make a career out of thinking about and spending time outdoors. He can be contacted at roperguth@gmail.com.

Kevin Opsahl is a staff writer and features editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at 435-752-2121 ext. 1016 or by email at kopsahl@hjnews.com