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Curbing CWD: Wisconsin DNR Highlights Mitigation Practices as Disease Continues to Spread in US

Curbing CWD: Wisconsin DNR Highlights Mitigation Practices as Disease Continues to Spread in US

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Learn about Chronic Wasting Disease, rules for the Badger State and what the disease looks like on a national scale

As the Orange Army makes its way around the country and bowhunters grovel about the deer they’ve lost to it, the sickening reality of the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is still a pervasive issue.

News articles from different states and organizations cite CWD outbreaks, such as reports in the Pittsburgh Post GazetteHouston Chronicle, and Outdoor Life. The latter, published in September, highlights an outbreak at a Wisconsin deer farm, Maple Hill Farms, which has sent 400 deer to 18 facilities in the state as well as to locations in six states over the last five years. It’s noted in the article that, “officials say this could be the most extensive network of deer shipments from a CWD-positive facility ever documented.”

That said, in response to the influx of hunter numbers in the woods and outbreaks of the disease, state and non-governmental agencies are getting the word out—especially the Wisconsin Division of Natural Resources. And at the forefront of the DNR’s mission to curb the spread of CWD is Wildlife Health Conservation Specialist Amanda Kamps. Before the state’s gun season, Kamps took time to discuss different tasks hunters can perform, from how to have deer tested to multiple ways of disposing of carcass waste properly. 

But more on that in a moment, first it’s worth diving into what CWD is and how it’s become so prevalent across the country. 

What is Chronic Wasting Disease?

In short, Chronic Wasting Disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy disease that exists among cervid populations and is always fatal. To dive deeper, if a deer, elk, or moose lives long enough to see the disease through to the end, misshapen prion proteins will accumulate enough in the central nervous system to make clinical signs—or symptoms visible—and essentially create holes in CNS tissues. Death then follows. Reports of deer in the final stages of CWD show the animal drooling, circling the same spot, having a loss of coordination, experiencing severe emaciation and dehydration, losing the ability to stand, and having no fear for humans. 

Prions are spread through bodily substances, such as saliva, urine, and stool, but can also be spread through decomposing carcasses in the environment. Once the disease contaminates the environment, it’s believed to remain there for at least a few years, but no scientific data has yet to pin a number to this. The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, however, noted that the disease could remain in the environment indefinitely. The disease can also spread at a rapid rate, as infected animals may not show clinical signs and transmit it for five years (Williams and Miller, 2002).

A US map of CWD positive counties

But where did it come from? According to the Centers for Disease Control, CWD was first reported in the 1960s in Colorado, where it has since spread to over 25 states and some Canadian provinces. The most recent reports of new cases in a state came in late November when two mule deer harvested in the Idaho Panhandle tested positive. Within a week, on Nov. 22, Idaho Fish and Game had established two management zones in Management Units 14 and 15. 

While the process is a cruel one, many infected deer do not live to show symptoms. This is especially concerning for medical experts, as, while there is currently no evidence that consuming deer meat or being in an area with the prions can cause infection in humans, diseases are constantly evolving. In Wisconsin, Kamps noted that positive results are followed by recommendations from state and federal agencies as to what to do with the infected animal.

“If they get a positive result, they’ll get notified of the results—typically through an email or their online Go Wild account,” she said. “It does state that there are recommendations from our state Department of Health, CDC, and WHO, not to consume venison from deer that test positive.

“It’s still their choice if they want to consume the venison from that deer, otherwise they can dispose of the meat in the options we have available. Then, for any deer that tests positive, the hunter that harvested that deer receives a replacement tag that would be available for the rest of season and next season.”

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Management practices to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease 

In most states, wildlife agencies have established specific management zones or surveillance areas to help curb the spread of CWD. By doing this, state wildlife managers and hunters can implement management actions to try and contain the disease and prevent the spread.  

In Wisconsin, CWD was first detected in three bucks nearly 20 years ago following the 2001 deer season. This came roughly three years after surveillance began and nearly 40 years from the first case identified in the United States. The first cases in Wisconsin came west of Madison, but when asked where the infected deer contracted the disease, Kamps couldn’t say for sure noting it’s very difficult in most cases to do so. And, once the infected bucks were detected, the Wisconsin DNR immediately took action. 

“If there’s county—let’s just say in Madison, so Dane County—that affects carcass transport regulations,” Kamps said. “We have response efforts that would create a 10-mile circle around . Then, we have increased actions that we can do. 

“If it’s a new wild deer detection, we will hold public meetings with the deer advisory councils that are involved in that area; we could issue surveillance permits for disease management purposes inside certain parcels of land closer to the exact location of that positive; these permits could be on public or private land with specific requirements for disease management and every deer is tested; there are carcass disposal options to encourage hunters to dispose of deer carcasses responsibly. We want to collect more samples from those surveillance areas for at least five years, and if we keep getting additional positives we would continue those efforts for additional years.” 

(Source: Wisconsin Division of Natural Resources)

Another important piece of preventing the spread of CWD in Wisconsin is a state statute that bans feeding and baiting in counties with the disease, as well as any county that falls within a 10-mile radius of a detection. And, while the southwestern part of the state is where the disease is most prevalent, most counties will register on state and private maps (like OnX) due to that 10-mile radius statute. 

“Not all the counties that are shaded in gray have had CWD detected in the county itself,” Kamps said, referencing Wisconsin’s CWD dispersal map. “Some of them have had it detected in wild deer; some in farm-raised deer; some of them with both.”

One question many folks ponder is whether or not farmed deer are hotspots for the spread of CWD, such as the outbreak noted above. When asked about this, Kamps explained she wasn’t entirely sure. 

“CWD is a disease that affects the same cervid species whether they’re wild deer or farm-raised,” she said. “I think the combination of that, of something that affects different industries and wild populations, those combined have the potential to increase the spread or distribution of the disease.” 

On the federal level, there is action to provide funding and put scientific findings together to develop an action plan. The America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Act was one such move, as it, among other things, developed a CWD task force within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Still, some NGOs like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are advocating that the U.S. Department of Agriculture does more in response to the nationwide spread. Currently, USDA hosts grant programs for states to tap into, which Wisconsin has done for the last couple of years. 

“The past couple of years, USDA APHIS has had funding available for state agencies and tribes working with both wild deer populations and farm-raised deer,” Kamps said. “So that’s one thing that’s been great to have. We’ve applied and received some grants and hope the opportunity for these continues. It’s not just helping individual states, but all the collaboration that happens by having those funding sources or anything that we can gain by having that to support each other and the science behind it.” 

Some of these USDA grants help fund carcass disposal options, which include the “Adopt-a-Dumpster” cost-share program and DNR-hosted dumpsters. Carcasses deposited in these are taken to a landfill or transfer station that accepts deer carcass waste. 

“We have a lot of partners across the state that are very much invested like we are with providing appropriate disposal options for hunters, and we know that the cost of hauling this type of waste and disposing of it continues to increase,” Kamps said. “As part of our own Adopt-a-Dumpster program, there’s a cost-share component to it, and this year we increased the amount that we can reimburse our partners.” 

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The DNR has also received grants to support communications around CWD to inform hunters of, among many topics, disposal options and the importance of having deer tested for CWD. 

How to test a deer for Chronic Wasting Disease and other ways to dispose of a carcass

So how can resident and non-resident hunters test the deer they kill in Wisconsin? According to the DNR communications team, there are four free ways to do this. 

First are the state’s self-serve kiosks. Available 24/7, kiosks have all the supplies for hunters to give the DNR the deer’s head for testing. To do this, there must be at least 5 inches of neck still attached. The second is working with meat processors, taxidermists, or other businesses that work with the DNR. After dropping off the deer, the professional will collect the samples to send to the DNR. Third, is an “at-home lymph node sample.” The DNR provides instructions on how to properly remove lymph nodes, which are then sent to the DNR for testing. Local wildlife biologists have these kits available. Finally, hunters can make an appointment with the local DNR wildlife management agents for sampling. 

Further, if hunters choose not to take their deer carcass to a dumpster, landfill, or transfer station, the DNR notes other ways to dispose of it. Some alternatives include taking it to a landfill, burying it if you’re on your land or private land with permission to dig, or returning it to the location of the kill on your land or private land with permission.

The Wisconsin DNR also breaks down which deer carcass parts can be moved across county lines, which carcass parts can be imported, and how to properly process a deer in a CWD-positive area which can be found here.

Yet, while most of this information is individualized to those hunting in Wisconsin, if you hunt cervids in a known CWD-affected area, it’s worth contacting the local game and fish department officials. Further, hunters should stay informed about their state’s CWD data and the game and fish department’s response. Finally, hunters should know interstate travel regulations involving deer parts.

Bottom line: CWD outbreaks are on the rise. So, if you’re part of the orange army or someone trying to outdo them with a bow in hand, do your part in curbing the spread, practice proper processing practices, and know the transportation regulations before leaving the area the animal was killed. 


Williams, ES and MW Miller. 2002. Chronic wasting disease in deer and elk in North America. Revue Scientifique tech. Off. int. Epiz. 21 (2), 305-316

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