Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been in the news a lot so far in 2018 for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, the deadly disease continues to spread in North America, and scientists still don't have any means of treating or curing it.

However, while it may not seem like much at first, there are a couple of things hunters can do to help slow down the spread of CWD.

Biologists first identified CWD in a captive deer herd in Colorado during the 1960s. Since then, the disease has spread to wild and captive deer, elk and moose populations in 22 states and two Canadian provinces.

Image: U.S. Geological Survey

Similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (better known as mad cow disease), scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, scientists think CWD is caused by abnormal proteins called prions. Prions can spread through bodily fluids (like saliva and urine) and can either directly infect another animal or contaminate food sources, soil and drinking water.

Several factors combine to make CWD so scary.

  • Unlike typical illnesses caused by bacteria or viruses, CWD has no known cure and the disease is 100 percent fatal.
  • Prions are very resistant to extreme temperatures and can still infect other animals years after a given location is contaminated.
  • CWD also has a long incubation period, and infected animals may not show symptoms for several years, yet may still be able to transmit the disease.

While there haven't been any documented cases of a human contracting CWD, recent experiments have shown that Macaque monkeys could contract CWD by eating meat from infected deer. Macaques are genetically similar to human beings, so it is possible that a person could contract CWD in the same manner at some point in the future.

Now, that's the bad news. So, what can we as hunters to do help? Since it is basically impossible to eradicate CWD once it gets established in a location, it is imperative that we do everything we can to slow down the spread of the disease.

1. Report any animal displaying obvious signs of illness to your local wildlife agency. Symptoms of CWD include drastic weight loss, lack of coordination, drooling or an unusual lack of fear of people.

2. Properly dispose of the carcasses of any deer, elk or moose you harvest. While the prions that cause CWD are concentrated in the brain, spinal column and lymph nodes of an infected animal, they can also be found in other parts. So, either bury all the remains several feet underground at the site of the harvest, dispose of them in a landfill or take the carcass to a licensed meat processor. This will reduce the odds of another animal contracting the disease by coming into contact with the carcass.

3. Wear latex, vinyl or rubber gloves when handling the remains of an animal. Use a saw or knife specifically dedicated to cutting bone, and do not use the same blade to cut meat and bone. If you take your meat to a commercial meat processor, make sure they process your meat individually and that the meat you get back is actually from the animal you brought in.

4. If you kill a deer or elk inside of a CWD zone, do not transport the intact carcass outside of the CWD zone. Exact rules vary from state to state, but usually this means just the meat can leave the locality where the animal was harvested. Some states allow hunters transport the head of an animal killed inside a CWD zone to a taxidermist and the meat to a processor. Check your state hunting regulations for details.

5. Consider getting your deer, elk or moose tested for CWD before you eat it. Once again, depending on where you're hunting, this may be required by law, but it's still a good idea even if you're not required to do so. If nothing else, it will give you peace of mind that you're eating an animal that was not infected with CWD.

6. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of baiting and putting out supplemental feed for wildlife. Feed stations encourage animals to congregate at a single location, which can increase the chances of spreading any infection, including CWD. Some states are already tightening restrictions on these practices to help slow the spread of disease. Obviously, you should follow the law wherever you hunt, but this is still something worth considering even if it's legal.

Remember: Once CWD gets established in an area, we do not currently have any means of eradicating it, so it's imperative that we do everything possible to reduce the spread of the disease in the meantime.