A Chance to Stop Chronic Wasting Disease


By the end of 2022, CWD was threatening deer, elk, moose and caribou populations in at least 30 US states and five Canadian provinces. The CWD Research & Management Act can provide funding to help stem the spread of this infectious disease.

Populations of these iconic mammals, a renewable resource in every sense, are at serious risk from this disease, which will have ecological, social and economic impacts. Cervids—members of the deer family—have  an outsized effect on their landscapes, and they’re also critical to rural economies across North America.

Of every 10 licensed hunters in the US, more than eight of them pursued whitetail deer this fall—and many of them encounter CWD in the landscape.

The CWD Research & Management Act could help turn the tide in the fight against this disease, but it has to make it to the President’s desk before the end of 2022.

CWD in the landscape

Wildlife diseases make conservation management decisions especially challenging. When these zoonotic diseases infect species that are frequently consumed by humans, those challenges are magnified.

CWD is a neurological disease is caused by a prion, a “misfolded” protein, that accumulates in nervous-system tissues of members of the cervid family. Mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease and scrapie are in the same category of disease. Prions are not like bacterial or viral infections, which can be denatured or killed relatively easily. Prions can’t be killed because they are not alive—and they can be changed only under extreme temperature, pressure or chemical stress.

We know that CWD can be transmitted by the transfer of these prions via direct contact between two animals, as well as through feces, saliva and certain carcass tissues from infected individuals. Research also suggests that prions can accumulate in soils and may be taken up by plants.

CWD is always fatal and there is yet no known vaccine or cure. Animals that get CWD may be infected for long periods of time before they succumb to the disease. Infected deer often become listless, emaciated and erratic in the late stages of CWD. However, people rarely observe CWD-positive animals in this condition, as they frequently die from other diseases before the full effects of CWD take hold. The best available science suggests that CWD may have population-level effects when more than 27% of the members of a population are infected. Where there is little active management of the disease, several herds are now seeing infection rates of more than 40%.

Active management of CWD requires timely, accurate data on where the cases of the disease exist and where those animals might move to in the future. Currently, preventing the spread of CWD is often the main objective. This typically involves reducing population densities to reduce opportunities for deer-to-deer transmission; this also reduces unnatural congregation around baiting or feeding sites.

CWD threatens many cervid species globally as well as the American System of Conservation Funding. There have been no recorded incidents of CWD transmitted from deer to humans—but the CDC recommends testing all cervids for the disease and avoiding the consumption of infected venison.

“Chronic wasting disease is a major and growing threat to many of our country’s native big game species, already presenting significant challenges to maintaining the health of these ecologically important wildlife species,” said James F. Arnold, president of the Boone and Crockett Club, in a press release. “The [CWD Research & Management Act] will provide critical new funding to state wildlife agencies that are on the front lines battling CWD. State fish and wildlife agencies have been working hard to prevent the introduction of CWD into new areas and to limit its spread, however CWD management is expensive—the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act will help states manage and mitigate outbreaks of the disease.”

The need for testing and management drains state and tribal wildlife agency budgets, while also reducing revenue from hunters out of fear of deer-human disease transmission. Thus CWD hits both sides of the balance sheet, and the results are bad for cervids and the innumerable other species that wildlife agencies are working to protect, conserve and manage. These institutions need more resources to address this growing problem—and the federal government might be able to provide just that.

What S.4111 will do 

Since 2016, Congress has addressed CWD through the annual appropriations process, but a cervid health program has never been formally authorized. A recent survey commissioned by the National Deer Association and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership suggests that 88% of Americans support a strong federal investment in addressing CWD.

The CWD Research & Management Act would formalize this and send more resources to state and tribal wildlife agencies for years to come. If passed, the bill would authorize $35 million for CWD research and $35 million for CWD management annually. It would also direct the Secretary of Agriculture to review a herd certification program that ensures captive cervid operations aren’t transporting sick deer.

The bill comes out of six years of bipartisan, bicameral effort by several stakeholders who were convened by Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI) and GT Thompson (R-PA), including several organizations representing both deer hunters and captive cervid breeders. Many people have spoken in support of this legislation and have worked to move it forward.

The bill passed out of the House of Representatives last year by high margins (393-33) and was referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Meanwhile, a Senate companion bill has been introduced and has 22 bipartisan cosponsors as of this writing. But it’s not law yet.

The CWD Research & Management Act still awaits Senate action and the President’s signature, and until then state and tribal wildlife agencies will have to continue managing this disease with the limited resources at their disposal.

How can we help? 

While this bill would help address some of the challenges facing wildlife biologists, they need hunter-conservationists to do their part as well. It is critical for hunters to cooperate with all state and tribal laws around reducing the spread of CWD. In some places, you may not be able to transport certain parts of deer carcasses, or you may be asked to test your harvest as a part of a regional monitoring effort. If you’re hunting somewhere CWD has been detected, take some extra time to read the rules for that area and follow them closely.

Sometimes these rules merely provide a floor for the best practices in mitigating the spread of this disease; if you’d like to do more, there are many other steps you can take, per the best available science. Hunters may also wish to get their deer tested so they can make informed choices about the venison in their freezers. Many states and tribes offer these tests, but hunters may submit lymph nodes from their deer, elk or moose directly.

While these guidelines are mainly for hunters, wildlife watchers should also abstain from feeding cervids and are asked to monitor local populations for signs of the disease.

The future of healthy deer across North America depends on all of us doing our part to curb the spread of CWD. If you’d like to help get this bill across the finish line, call both of your Senators and ask them to support the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act.

For more information about this disease, please visit the CWD Alliance website: https://cwd-info.org/

Charlie Booher is a conservation lobbyist at Watershed Results LLC and holds degrees in wildlife management, public policy and natural-resource conflict resolution from Michigan State University and the University of Montana. 

Banner image: A penned white-tailed deer with Chronic Wasting Disease