The Positives of Chronic Wasting Disease

By now, we are all very aware of the negative consequences that CWD has brought to the deer and elk farming industry in North America. These include: loss of significant markets for velvet antler due to Korean ban on imports; restrictions (up to five years) on the inter-state and inter-provincial movement of cervids; de-population of elk farms; a significant loss of revenue to the industry; and an increased pressure by opponents of game farming to shut the industry down.

But what about the upsides of CWD? No, I’m not joking. I believe there may be some significant benefits and opportunities associated with the CWD “crisis.”

First, however, let’s look at a recent media release from the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) regarding CWD. [My observations and comments are in brackets].

Where has CWD been found?

CWD is known to infect free-ranging deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and free-ranging deer in western Colorado, southern Wyoming, western Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Saskatchewan. It has been diagnosed in elk in game ranches in Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alberta [only one elk so far] and Saskatchewan.

Some people believe CWD may exist in wild animals in other places, but the authorities simply haven’t bothered to look/test for it. I feel that the general public lacks accurate information and believes CWD is pervasive among all wild deer and elk herds.

Is CWD dangerous to humans?

Epidemiologists with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and epidemiologists at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have studied chronic wasting disease and have found no evidence that CWD poses a risk to humans or domestic animals. Over 16 years of monitoring in the infected area in Colorado has found no disease in people or cattle living there. The World Health Organization has likewise said there is no scientific evidence that CWD can infect humans. HOWEVER, as a precaution, the WHO also says no part of a deer or elk with evidence of CWD should be consumed by people or other animals.

There are mixed messages here – there is no evidence that it is unsafe, but don’t eat the animal if there is evidence of CWD. Other than sending in a brain for testing, how is a person supposed to know whether the animal has CWD?

What precautions should hunters take?

Health officials advise hunters not to consume meat from animals known to be infected with the disease. Boning out meat is recommended. In addition, they suggest hunters take simple precautions such as wearing latex gloves when field dressing carcasses, minimizing handling of brain and spinal tissues, washing hands and instruments thoroughly after field dressing is completed, avoiding eating the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils, and lymph nodes of harvested animals, and finally requesting that your animal is processed individually, without meat from other animals being added to meat from your animal.

Problems are arising because butcher shops are refusing to process wild deer because of fears of CWD and issues related to disposal of offal.

How can you tell if a deer has CWD?

Because the brain is the organ affected by the disease, infected animals begin to lose bodily functions and display abnormal behavior such as staggering or standing with very poor posture. Animals may have an exaggerated wide posture, or may carry the head and ears lowered. Infected animals become very emaciated (thus “wasting” disease) and will appear in very poor body condition. Infected animals will also often stand near water and will consume large amounts of water. Drooling or excessive salivation may be apparent.

At early stages, deer and elk may have CWD and not exhibit any major symptoms. I understand that it takes 36 months for the disease to exhibit major symptoms and for the animal to die.

What should I do if I see a deer that shows CWD symptoms?

Accurately document the location of the animal and immediately contact the nearest Wildlife Division or Law Enforcement Division office. Do not attempt to touch, disturb, kill, or remove the animal.

I find this to be an curious recommendation. Wouldn’t it be better to kill the animal and have it tested, rather than having it flee into the wild while you are reporting it to the wildlife division. Do wildlife divisions have the resources to track down every deer or elk that hunters report may have the symptoms of CWD? I think not!

Can I have deer venison tested?

Deer “venison” cannot be tested – only brain and neural and lymph node tissue can be tested to detect the presence of CWD. There is no means of testing deer tissue samples for CWD in Texas at present. However, the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab in College Station is in the process of being certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be able to test CWD samples. Eventually, the public may be instructed to contact the Texas Animal Health Commission for information on testing.

Can the average Joe deer hunter have the deer he shot in the wild tested for CWD prior to butchering and eating it? Some places such as Saskatchewan do test many hunter kills; other places don’t have the resources. Also who pays for the testing? Are adequate lab resources available to do the testing?

Is the meat safe to eat?

While the agent that produces chronic wasting disease in deer and elk has not been positively identified, there is strong evidence to suggest that abnormally shaped proteins called prions are involved. Research completed to date indicates that the prions accumulate only in certain parts of infected animals – the brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils, and spleen. Based on these findings, hunters are recommended to bone out their meat and consume only muscle tissue from harvested animals.

I think many people still may be hesitant about eating wild deer meat that has NOT been tested for CWD.

Benefits and opportunities

I don’t know about you, but after reading the above, I think I will pass on filling my freezer with wild venison this fall. If I want venison, I will go to and buy some farm-raised venison that I know has been tested for CWD and processed in a government-inspected plant. Taking into account all the fees, expenses and hassles in shooting your own deer, buying safe, quality ranched venison is probably a lot cheaper too. I believe a lot of other hunters are thinking the same way. Increased interest and demand for safe farm-raised venison is one of the upsides of CWD.

The other beneficiary of the CWD scare is the hunting preserve industry. If I am determined to go out and shoot my own deer this fall, animals from CWD and TB-monitored herds on well-run preserves are going to look a lot more attractive than wild stock. If I were a preserve owner, I would be ramping up my advertising and focusing on these benefits. Also, with the abundance of animals due to restrictions on inter-state movement of deer and elk, I would encourage preserves to offer more “economy” hunts. This would provide a viable and affordable option to those hunters that are concerned about CWD in the wild.

What are some of the other upsides and opportunities that I see from CWD?

  1. It will eliminate the marginal operators that give the industry a bad image. People with small pens, poor feeding and health programs, and little knowledge, skills or interest to look after their animals properly will go out of business.
  2. It is a great time to upgrade your genetics. With prices for quality breeding stock being so reasonable, why not get the best genetics possible? Also, look to the future. As the venison market develops, you may want to get animals that have bigger body weights.
  3. Now is the time to get rid of your marginal animals. Sell them for meat. Any does/cows that don’t produce offspring, have difficult births, over-mother, or are high-strung (see Article 4 below) should be sent to the slaughterhouse. Research done at the Agriculture Canada Research Station at Lacombe, Alberta has found that the meat of elk bulls and cows remains tender into old age.
  4. With prices for breeding stock being so affordable, it is a good time to recruit new farmers into the industry. We believe deer and elk farming is a viable and sustainable agricultural pursuit. Now is a good time to get in. Your associations should be aggressively marketing this opportunity!
  5. With the inter-state movement restrictions of cervids, the opportunities for semen sales and use of other reproductive technologies increase. There is now an incentive to undertake more research to increase our knowledge of these technologies. Advances here could reduce the need for movement of animals in the future, thus reducing risks of disease migrations, and increase the profitability of producers.
  6. With lower animal prices, venison is now a more affordable meat that is competitive with other red meats. This should introduce venison to new consumers who hopefully will become addicted to this tasty and healthy alternative.
  7. Lower animal prices have enabled some entrepreneurs to establish profitable businesses buying deer/elk at auctions and selling cost-competitive venison directly to consumers and at farmers’ markets.
  8. I believe that the CWD issue will encourage the development and implementation of better record-keeping systems and related regulations. Canadian provinces already have such inventory and trace-back systems in place. More U.S. states need to do so, and there needs to be some harmonization across jurisdictions.
  9. The paranoia about CWD will result in more research and the eventual finding of a live animal test. What we learn about CWD will have significant implications for other related animal and human diseases as well.
  10. With fears continuing about CWD in the wild for the next few years, there will be a significant reduction in the number of people going deer and elk hunting. This will be especially true for out-of-state hunters concerned about transporting carcasses and contributing to the spread of disease. This, in turn, will see drastic reductions in revenues of state Fish and Wildlife Departments. Because these Departments rely on these revenues, there will be staff reductions and loss of influence of these agencies on public policy making regarding deer and elk.

Final comments

As I have described in this article, there are upsides and opportunities associated with the CWD outbreak. Hopefully, we will take advantage of these opportunities to make our industry stronger and sustainable for the long run. As the old saying goes – when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade!


By Russell Sawchuk