Chronic Wasting Disease, A Real and Unignorable Disease at our Doorstep

Photo Courtesy of WDFW

2021 marked the first documented case of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Idaho. A quiet and widely ignored killer, CWD is at the very least, next door. It’s an unfortunate development for wildlife advocates, hunters, biologists, forest health proponents, and those concerned about communicable diseases.

If you haven’t been tracking the spread of CWD around the world and in the US, this fatal disease affecting cervids (in Washington, that’s our deer, elk, and moose) is something to pay close attention to and get involved in efforts to track, study, and support efforts to stop it.

It is a prion disease, in the same family of diseases that includes Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans, and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in cattle. The handful of people studying CWD believe the proteins (prions) probably spread through body fluids like feces, saliva, blood, and urine, either through direct contact or indirectly through environmental contamination of soil, food, or water. 

Tens of thousands of cervids are succumbing to CWD across the US each year. It can take a long time for symptoms to develop, it is always fatal, and there’s no treatment or vaccine. Symptoms can include drastic weight loss (wasting), stumbling, listlessness, neurologic symptoms, ultimately leading to death.

It was discovered in wild deer in 1981 and has now been detected in at least 30 states (up from 27 in 2021), however, it’s worth noting that while some states have growing or robust efforts around CWD (Wisconsin), many states are doing little to nothing to track or stop it. The problem is we have a serious knowledge gap when it comes to this insidious killer. 

Few studies have been conducted, and while there have been no known cases of a human contracting the “zombie deer disease”, experience with prion diseases has researchers concerned. Despite warnings from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and state wildlife management agencies, somewhere between 7,000 – 30,000 cervids with CWD are consumed annually around the US, and some researchers are worried about the potential of CWD spreading to humans.

Writ large, CWD has been ignored or shelved, a “political hot potato,” but with well over half of the 50 states now reeling from its impacts on free ranging wildlife, it can no longer be put on the back burner. Washingtonians should hear the call to organize and support the tracking of this disease, get informed, report ungulates with signs and symptoms whether they are dead or alive, and support any efforts proposed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to create datapoints.  

WDFW has recently updated the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) for Carcass Transport Restrictions. The rule was updated to create clear regulations around importing certain parts of deer, elk, moose, and caribou harvested beyond Washington’s border, irrespective of whether CWD has been detected in the place of origin.

Washington state needs a public-private partnership between agencies, membership organizations, and the general public to organize around CWD before it is too late to educate and manage. It’s a widespread issue with a need for local action. For more information, visit WDFW’s CWD page or reach out to the BHA Washington Chapter.

About Josh Wilund

Native Idaho'n, Washington state resident. Upland and subalpine hunter and angler. Former backpacking/mountaineering guide. Public and Government affairs business owner.

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