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North Dakota Outdoors/ Doug Leier: Game and Fish Department offers latest info on chronic wasting disease in North Dakota

In hunting units where CWD is documented, it’s important to get a good handle on how common it is. But equally important is documenting where CWD is not, said Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Chronic wasting disease is always to deer, elk and moose. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

North Dakota had its first confirmed case of chronic wasting disease in deer detected in 2009.

Since then, CWD has become a familiar term to most North Dakota deer hunters.

“We first started finding deer with CWD in Grant and Sioux counties, hunting unit 3F2, in 2009, and we’ve been finding positive deer down there ever since,” said Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “And in 2018, we found it for the first time in Divide County, unit 3A1. And since then, we found it farther south as well in Williams County in unit 3B1 and then unit 4B last year.”

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North Dakota Game and Fish Department


Fortunately – and this is important to remember – while a number of deer have tested positive for the disease in North Dakota, the prevalence of CWD remains low, from 2% to 5%.

That is a good sign because CWD has not yet spread throughout the state, and it’s also an indicator that some new regulations put in place since that first discovery have been working. As such, it is still possible to limit the impact of CWD and prevent its spread to new portions of the state.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department recently updated the information on its website to highlight some new regulations and the ongoing efforts to keep the disease in check. Here’s some information about CWD, including excerpts from the website at gf.nd.gov.

What is CWD?

CWD is a disease of deer, moose and elk that is always fatal. It can lead to a decline in deer populations if left unchecked, and once on a landscape, it remains indefinitely. CWD is caused by a prion and results in the formation of microscopic, sponge-like holes in the animal’s brain. It is not caused by a virus, bacteria or nutritional imbalance. There is no treatment or vaccine.

CWD early detection

Early detection of CWD is a key to managing its spread. North Dakota Game and Fish conducts widespread surveillance across one-third of the state each year.

“This year, given the COVID situation, we’re prioritizing with our hunter-harvested surveillance in the northwestern and southwestern parts of the state,” Bahnson said. “We had initially planned to do the central third of the state, but we’re going to put that on hold until next year so we can focus our resources, our personnel, on areas where it’s a little greater concern.

“We really rely heavily on hunters to submit heads for sampling, we rely heavily on taxidermists, meat lockers and gas stations that are willing to host the drop-off sites,” he said. “In terms of compliance from hunters, it varies quite a bit. In units where we have CWD documented, roughly 10% of license holders end up dropping off heads for sampling. Outside those units, in adjacent units, we’re looking at more like 2% to 3%. So, that’s a number we’d like to see increased quite a bit.”

In hunting units where CWD is documented, it’s important to get a good handle on how common it is. But equally important, Bahnson said, is documenting where CWD is not.


“In order to be confident in saying that we don’t have CWD in a unit, we have to test a lot of heads. Only testing 10 heads doesn’t give you much confidence,” he said. “But if we can get a lot of hunters to participate, if we can test a few hundred heads from each unit, then we can start to confidently make assessments of whether CWD is likely there or not. So, hunter surveillance is a critical part of the big picture.”

What else can hunters do?

  • Be familiar with the 2020 CWD Proclamation and follow it.

  • Dispose of carcasses appropriately, regardless of where the animal was harvested and if it has been tested. CWD remains in the soil and can be taken up by plants. Scavengers that feed on the carcass can spread CWD through their scat. The best way to dispose of a carcass is by taking it to a landfill.

  • Animal-to-animal contact is the main way a disease is spread in a herd. Practices that lead to deer unnaturally congregating or frequenting the same place put the entire herd at risk. You can reduce this risk by avoiding the practices of baiting and feeding.

  • Report sick and dead deer to the Game and Fish Department.

Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

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Doug Leier

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