A trio of UND Fisheries and Wildlife students gained hands-on experience that could serve them well in their professional careers, when they day-tripped to Bismarck on Nov. 26 to help staff from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department remove lymph nodes from deer heads as part of ongoing efforts to sample for chronic wasting disease.

The Game and Fish Department is on track to test about 3,000 deer shot by hunters this fall for the brain disease that’s fatal to deer, elk and moose. CWD, which is caused by a rogue protein – called a prion, which basically turns the brain of infected animals into a sponge – remains at a low prevalence in North Dakota, and the goal is to keep it that way.

To date, CWD has been found in 17 wild deer in south-central and northwest North Dakota, but not in the eastern third of the state. Testing helps the department track CWD prevalence and increase confidence that areas where it hasn’t been found indeed are disease-free, said Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for Game and Fish in Bismarck.

“We need to test a lot of deer to reach that conclusion, so it is important for hunters to consider dropping off their deer for testing,” Bahnson said.

‘Strap in …’

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As part of the testing process, Game and Fish staff remove lymph nodes – an area where the prions are found – from the deer heads they collect and send them to a lab in Colorado for testing. Removing the lymph nodes took about a minute per head once they got into the swing of it, said Grant Kapaun, a senior Fisheries and Wildlife major from Bemidji who made the recent day trip to Bismarck.

Joining him were students Gunnar Patz and Jill Goodman. The students were part of a 16-person crew working in the lab, Kapaun said.

“We were just kind of thrown to the wolves, in a sense, and they said, ‘This is what we’ve got to do, and we have to get over 1,000 heads done today,’ ” Kapaun said. “They’re kind of like, ‘strap in, we’re going to be here all day.’”

This year’s CWD sampling effort included nearly 100 sites set up for hunters to drop off deer heads in more than 20 of the state’s 40-or-so deer hunting units, including units 3A1, 3B1, 3F2 and 4B, where CWD previously has been found, along with units in the eastern third of North Dakota selected as part of rotational surveillance efforts.

The UND Chapter of The Wildlife Society monitored the Grand Forks collection site for Game and Fish staff, a partnership that resulted in the three students traveling to Bismarck to help with the sampling, Kapaun said.

“It was actually kind of unique because, typically, when you go places to do these experiences, you’re kind of treated as an outsider,” he said. “But right away, we literally sat in on their briefing just like all the other Game and Fish employees and weren’t treated any differently whatsoever.”

Real-world experience

Helping with CWD surveillance is just the latest example of UND Fisheries and Wildlife students gaining real-world experience, said Susan Felege, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and management and the student Wildlife Society chapter adviser. Students have been involved in research on everything from ducks to drones to human dimensions of deer hunting.

There’s nothing like hands-on experience, Felege said, and few issues are more important to wildlife managers than CWD, which has no cure and persists on the landscape indefinitely.

Susan Felege of the UND Biology Department faculty records notes Friday, April 19, during a survey of prairie chicken booming grounds west of Grand Forks. As an educator, Felege says there's nothing like hands-on experience for students to learn about fisheries and wildlife management. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Susan Felege of the UND Biology Department faculty records notes Friday, April 19, during a survey of prairie chicken booming grounds west of Grand Forks. As an educator, Felege says there's nothing like hands-on experience for students to learn about fisheries and wildlife management. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

“I think this gives students an opportunity to find out how big of an issue (CWD) is,” Felege said. “Not from a professor talking in front of the room, but the people actually dealing with this on a day-to-day basis.”

The trip to Bismarck and back made for a long day – the students left Grand Forks at 4 a.m. and returned at 8 p.m. – but the opportunity to work in the lab was “unbelievable,” Kapaun said.

“I was talking to Jill and Gunnar when we were just about back, and I was like, it was a long day, and my back and my hips are sore, but I think I’d turn around and do it again tomorrow because that was just unbelievable, to be able to experience that,” Kapaun said.

“It was a ton of fun.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

Students from the UND Chapter of The Wildlife Society have been overseeing a site at the Grand Forks Gun Club, 6950 Gateway Drive, collecting deer heads for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department this fall to test for chronic wasting disease as part of surveillance the department conducts in eastern North Dakota every few years. Pictured are Tanner Stechmann (left), a UND graduate and wildlife technician for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, and UND student Grant Kapaun. (Submitted photo)
Students from the UND Chapter of The Wildlife Society have been overseeing a site at the Grand Forks Gun Club, 6950 Gateway Drive, collecting deer heads for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department this fall to test for chronic wasting disease as part of surveillance the department conducts in eastern North Dakota every few years. Pictured are Tanner Stechmann (left), a UND graduate and wildlife technician for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, and UND student Grant Kapaun. (Submitted photo)