CWD Can Be Controlled, With Hunters’ Help
Deer are Indiana’s largest game animal by almost any measure – literal physical size is just the most obvious.
Figuratively, deer are also Indiana’s biggest game species in terms of importance to the state. Deer are important to all hunters, even those who choose not to hunt deer, because of the direct and indirect funding the sport provides.
A total of 155,972 deer hunting licenses (excluding youth) were sold last season. As usual, that was the most licenses sold in Indiana to hunt any animal. Revenue from those sales helps pay for much of the conservation work that the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife (DFW) does. These programs include research projects, education and outreach, and disease monitoring.
In terms of disease monitoring, chronic wasting disease (CWD) is top of mind for many with an interest in wildlife these days. CWD is a serious brain and spinal cord disease caused by a prion, which is a misfolded protein. CWD spreads directly among deer through bodily secretions and indirectly from contaminated soil and water that have been in contact with those secretions.
Although other deer diseases do and have already affected some deer in Indiana for years, as detailed in this guidebook’s Deer Disease section, CWD poses the largest single threat. That’s because always-fatal CWD, although not yet detected in Indiana at this writing, threatens nearly everything deer and deer related.
But there is hope of controlling CWD’s impact with the cooperation and support of a lot of people, especially deer hunters.
Understanding and effectively dealing with CWD requires realizing how close to Hoosier borders CWD’s been detected, what it is, and what it does to deer—which, it should be noted, show no physical signs of sickness in the disease’s early stages.
Michigan and Illinois have detected CWD in wild deer within 25 to 35 miles of Indiana’s border. Deer, of course, don’t recognize state lines. That means CWD could already be here, undetected.
Although the situation seems dire, Joe Caudell, DFW Assistant Director of Science and Research says that early management is vital in minimizing CWD’s impact, and getting help from hunters is key.
“Hunters and other folks hear that CWD is a serious disease, and there is not much anyone can do about it,” Caudell said. “But they also need to hear that early detection and management can be effective, and that DNR needs their help.”
“The first step is to do what we can to keep it from coming to Indiana. We are never going to get rid of CWD, but we can reduce its impact.”
As Mitch Marcus, DFW Fish & Wildlife Health Supervisor says, “We want to detect it early and slow its spread.” Studies show CWD prions, once present, stay present, and remain contagious to deer for years and possibly decades.
Indiana’s experts continue to work with peers in CWD-positive states to determine what’s most effective in battling this deer disease.
This season, the primary geographical focus of Indiana’s CWD surveillance will be on seven counties in the northwest and four counties in the northeast closest to where CWD has been detected in border states. That is where most of the DNR’s monitoring efforts will be targeted, but hunters all over the state can and should participate in monitoring.
More formal surveillance that involved person-to-person information gathering was planned, but was put on indefinite hold because of the effects of COVID-19.
Instead, locations at which hunters can drop off their harvest’s head for testing will be available statewide for hunters who want their deer tested. Head-drop sites will be strategically located at Fish & Wildlife Areas (FWAs) and State Fish Hatcheries. Participating hunters will receive a commemorative metal band similar to those used to tag deer in past years.
To participate, a hunter will cut off the deer’s head, complete a data sheet, attach the data sheet to the deer head with a zip tie run through the deer’s ear or tongue or around an antler, put the head with the attached data sheet in a provided bag, and deposit it in a well-marked cooler at a respective DNR site.
DNR will send the sample to a lab and await results. Testing time varies and is done at no charge to the hunter.
“We typically get results back in two to 10 weeks,” Marcus said.
Results will be posted at on.IN.gov/sickwildlife, and the hunter can look them up on their own, using their confirmation number.
Complete instructions, including a listing of head-drop locations and an interactive map, will be posted at on.IN.gov/cwd.
“If we get a positive, we would contact that hunter individually,” Marcus said.
What to do with the meat while waiting for results is up to the hunter. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has never found CWD transmitted to a person, but still recommends not eating CWD-positive meat.
It’s important that hunters remember that the testing the DNR is doing is for surveillance only. It’s not a food safety test.
On a broader scale, a positive result would launch an ever-evolving plan DNR has been working on for years. The response will be informed by the success of other CWD-positive states’ approach and an Indiana case’s particular situation.
Caudell says that there is a misperception that CWD is managed by trying to eradicate deer from a CWD-positive area.
“That is not the goal of Indiana DNR for CWD management, and in fact, eradicating the deer population has never been the goal of any other state,” he said. “The quicker we can detect CWD, the more likely it becomes that we can lessen its impact.”
As a hunter, the most effective ways you can help protect the health of Indiana deer are to do a few simple things:
- Get your harvested deer tested.
- Properly dispose of the deer’s remains.
- Follow rules for moving carcasses between states.
- Report sick deer at on.IN.gov/sickwildlife
- Encourage other hunters to do all of the above.
Lessening the impact of CWD is in the best interest of deer and all who care about deer. To control CWD, the DNR needs your help.