The 2019 hunting season was a great one for me. My 75-year-old father nearly harvested his 12th Wyoming bull elk with a bow. After years of hoarding non-resident preference points, my nephew traveled from Michigan and was able to connect on a nice muley buck in the northern Wind River mountains. I capped it off with a mature whitetail buck near Lander in November.
The most anticipated, if not the best, news was finding out that both bucks tested negative for chronic wasting disease.
You may wonder why that part of it is so important to me. I’m a life-long hunter, and a physician. I have an interest in spending my fall enjoying all that the Wyoming outdoors have to offer while harvesting healthy wild protein for my freezer. At the same time, I want to ensure that my family, my patients and I can safely enjoy that meat without fear of getting a disease.
CWD is a fatal disease that can affect all members of the cervid family, including deer, elk and moose. So far, CWD has not shown the ability to transmit to humans. There is a similar prion disease that humans do contract, called Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is also fatal. A 2004 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not find a definitive link between consuming venison and Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Despite the lack of a direct link between the two, both the CDC and Wyoming Game and Fish recommend against eating venison from an infected animal.
Why? For starters, an ongoing study by Canadian scientists has revealed some concerning results. These studies involve prion transmission to macaque monkeys, because their “species protectiveness” is thought to be similar to humans. CWD has a long “latency” period, meaning an infected animal can be symptom-free for years, potentially passing on the disease while appearing healthy.
The significantly longer lifespan of humans in comparison to deer and elk causes me a lot of concern, especially for young people. This study will take years to complete, and in the meantime we are left with uncertainty over the ability of CWD prions to transfer to humans.
I’ve practiced medicine in Wyoming for more than 25 years, doing my best to keep my fellow Wyoming residents healthy and happy so we can all enjoy the great outdoors together. At the same time, I frequently travel back to the Midwest to hunt with family in Michigan and Wisconsin. The Midwest hunting culture is at least as deeply rooted as it is here in Wyoming, and that culture has been drastically altered as a result of CWD.
There, game biologists proposed early interventions to slow the spread of CWD. This was based on the prevalent scientific opinions showing the potential of prion transmission via close contact and even in the soil. Those early interventions in Wisconsin were unsuccessful — primarily due to a lack of public support and special-interest legislative lobbying.
As we look at our own game herds here in Wyoming, it will be important to learn from both successes and failures of other states. Management of elk feedgrounds in particular will need serious evaluation with thought toward the potential long-term impacts to our game herd, hunting culture, economy and human health.
CWD is a problem. Unfortunately, it is a problem with a lot of unknowns. So what do we do? I suggest we take what proactive measures we can.
We can make use of the information that is already out there. Wyoming Game and Fish in December released a new draft management plan for CWD, and its website features a host of information. The CDC and other states also have information to share. It’s important to understand that most of this information is intended to help keep us safe and healthy while we work to fully comprehend the health risk posed to humans from CWD.
As hunters, we can help by continuing to hunt and harvest wild animals. Contributing samples from our harvest to WGF’s ongoing CWD disease surveillance efforts will help in gathering data needed to learn more about the disease while allowing us to know the infection status of our harvest.
All parts of an animal that tests positive should be destroyed per current recommendations. The current CWD testing process is quite accurate but there is still a very rare chance that a deer testing negative does have the disease, so it’s still a sensible precaution to avoid the brain, spinal tissue and lymph nodes while processing.
It’s also important to talk about these issues with all interested parties. Ranchers, outfitters, scientists, public health providers, hunters and non-hunters who enjoy eating venison all have a stake in the game. The potential impacts would reach every corner of our state. Culturally. Economically. Physically.
Scientists have studied this disease for more than 50 years. Different states have had varying successes and failures. Poor communications and a lack of teamwork between wildlife management professionals and the public have often hindered efforts to manage CWD. The latency period of the disease itself forces us to take a long-term approach to both information gathering and management.
I’m hopeful that we can come together and look to the future of our hunting culture for our kids, grandkids and beyond. I want to protect not only their hunting heritage but also their chance at enjoying a sustainable, clean environment, for both their own health and that of the deer, elk and moose herds. What kind of ancestors do we want to be to those who come after us?
Brian Gee is a physician and avid outdoorsman. He has practiced ER and primary care medicine in Wyoming for over 25 years. He currently resides in Lander. The views expressed here are solely his own.