Chronic wasting disease: What hunters need to know about this always-fatal deer ailment

Jeff Murray
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

Chronic wasting disease — a major threat to deer populations in several states — isn't a problem in New York yet, and state wildlife officials want to keep it that way.

With the regular gun season for deer looming in both New York and Pennsylvania,  officials in both states are reminding hunters of precautions they need to take to prevent further spread.

What is chronic wasting disease in deer, and are humans at risk?

Chronic wasting disease is an untreatable brain and nervous system illness that isn't believed to be harmful to humans but is always fatal to infected deer and related species.

It was first identified in 1967 and has since been detected in at least 23 states and two Canadian provinces, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The disease is caused by abnormally-shaped proteins called prions that, once in an organism, can cause existing, healthy proteins to convert into diseased proteins.

The malady is related to other prion-borne illnesses, including mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease in humans, both of which involve misshapen proteins.

Related:White-tailed deer have tested positive for COVID-19 in NY. Here's what hunters should do.

Subscriber exclusive:Art of marijuana pipemaking gets mainstream recognition in NY

For subscribers:Can New Yorkers carry guns? A 700-year-old law may inform Supreme Court's Second Amendment decision

Chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania seen as a threat to NY deer herd

Wildlife experts are concerned about the spread and impact of CWD because the prions are shed through saliva, urine and feces of infected animals and can remain active in the environment for years.

Transport of carcasses of infected deer by hunters is another pathway for the disease to spread to healthy deer populations, which is why New York restricts the importation of harvested deer from other states — including Pennsylvania, where CWD has an established presence.

This white-tailed deer, photographed in Wisconsin, shows the chronic wasting disease symptom of emaciation.

Close to 9,600 of the more than 800,000 people who bought Pennsylvania hunting licenses in 2020 came from New York, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

CWD was first identified in captive deer in Pennsylvania in 2012 and in wild populations in 2013 and has since been confirmed in 27 counties.

The disease was first discovered in New York among captive and wild deer in Oneida County in 2005. Since then, no new cases of CWD have been found, the state Department of Environmental Conservation said.

How can hunters help stop the spread of chronic wasting disease?

Here are some rules and guidelines deer hunters should be aware of before heading out for firearm season, which opens Nov. 20 in New York's Southern Zone and Nov. 27 in Pennsylvania:

  • Hunters are prohibited from returning to New York with whole carcasses or intact heads of deer they harvest anywhere outside of the state.
  • Only the deboned meat, cleaned skull cap, antlers with no flesh adhering, raw or processed cape or hide, cleaned teeth or lower jaw, and finished taxidermy products of CWD-susceptible animals may be brought into New York.
  • Hunters returning to New York with allowable parts of CWD-susceptible animals must mark the parts or packages containing the parts with a tag identifying the species, state, province, or country where the animal was taken, and name and address of the person who harvested the animal.
  • CWD is not known to infect humans, but hunters are encouraged to follow precautions when handling and eating big game meat — including wearing rubber gloves when field dressing and processing animals, minimizing contact with the brain and spinal tissue, and thoroughly sanitizing hands and instruments afterward.

For more information on chronic wasting disease response in New York, go to  dec.ny.gov/animals/7191.html.

To learn more about CWD in Pennsylvania, go to pgc.pa.gov/Wildlife/Wildlife-RelatedDiseases/Pages/ChronicWastingDisease.aspx.

Follow Jeff Murray on Twitter @SGJeffMurray. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.