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Faced with chronic wasting disease, what’s a hunting family to do?

Hunters are critical for game management, but the spread of CWD means some may put down the rifle.

 

The fall sun warmed my face and a breeze rustled the leaves of a nearby aspen as my husband returned from a morning elk hunt.

“Any luck?” I asked.

He nodded, describing elk bugles and a clean kill as he headed to the truck for his pack, saw and knives.

I scooped up our 1-year-old from a nap in our tent.

“Daddy got an elk,” I said softly. “He needs our help.”

The three of us stepped up a southeast Wyoming hillside covered in pines and fall grasses. The elk died not far from where Josh, my husband, shot it with his bow. It would fill our freezer for a year.

Josh and a friend got to work: removing organs, peeling hide, placing tenderloins and backstraps in white cheesecloth bags. Both men learned to hunt from their fathers, who learned from their fathers. They continue because of tradition, relishing the lean organic meat and weekends spent sitting, backs against lodgepole pines, listening for the squeal of a cow elk or the bugle of a bull.

With her daughter on her back, Peterson carries an elk shoulder to the family’s truck.
Josh Peterson

We were passing this tradition on to our daughter, who toddled up in her fox-and-rabbit-covered snowsuit and felt the elk’s smooth antler and coarse fur. I spoke of gratitude for sustainable meat, then I loaded her in a pack on my back, wrapped my arms around one of the elk’s shoulders and walked down the hill to our truck.

Leaving camp, the thought hit me: Would we test this elk for chronic wasting disease?

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) kills every deer, elk and moose it infects by slowly boring holes in their brains. Our hunt region has one of the highest-known prevalence rates on the continent in deer.

No study has yet confirmed that CWD can be transferred to humans, but the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization urge hunters not to eat animals that test positive. It was September 2017, and I’d just read early results from a study showing that CWD can infect macaques.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/wildlife-the-disease-devastating-deer-herds-may-also-threaten-human-health-science]

We had eaten two elk from here already without worrying about the disease. But the stakes were higher now: We had a child.

I knew we had a higher chance of dying in a car wreck or lightning strike than of CWD. But if a test came back positive, dared we take even the smallest chance of turning our brains to mush? Could we feed that meat to our daughter? Could I let us hunt in an area with CWD again? But with CWD so prevalent, where would we go?

Staring ahead at the empty dirt road snaking down through golden foothills, I asked my husband: Should we test our elk?

He was quiet.

CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE is the ungulate version of mad cow in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans. It’s a naturally occurring protein, or prion, that mutates, causing spongiform encephalopathy. It makes deer and elk weak and lethargic. If they’re not hit by a car or eaten, they wither and die.

The mutated protein isn’t a virus or bacteria, so cooking cannot kill it. It clings to metal and can only be destroyed through 900 degree Fahrenheit heat, lye or bleach. It can live in soil for years. And no cure exists. Animals carry CWD for years before developing symptoms, making it difficult for hunters to follow typical don’t-shoot-if-it-looks-sick protocols.

CWD was first discovered in the ’60s at a research facility in Colorado, and then two decades later in wild deer in southeast Wyoming. It has spread to at least 24 states and two Canadian provinces, likely through physical contact, transported through sick animals to captive facilities. And it keeps spreading; it appeared two years ago in Montana and shortly after in western Wyoming. One study showed the deer herd with the highest rate in Wyoming may, by some estimates, be gone in less than 40 years.

As Josh and I kept driving, we discussed the data, then sat in silence.

“I have to know,” I said, finally. I couldn’t open the freezer each day for a package of elk burger, steaks or roasts and wonder — however small the chance — if that would be the one to kill my family. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and called a Game and Fish biologist I knew in a nearby town. He would meet us in the office parking lot.

I'M NOT THE ONLY WORRIED HUNTER; hundreds, if not thousands, of others share my concern. 

Hunting is the backbone of North America’s wildlife agencies — license fees pay for nearly all wildlife management, and with fewer top predators like bears and lions, herds need human hunters to control their numbers. Wildlife managers believe hunting may well be one of the best ways to contain the disease, by thinning herds and slowing its spread. If the disease ever reaches humans, though, hunters are likely to face the biggest health risks.

Game and fish agencies are increasing public outreach, leaving hunters to decide what to do. While the CDC recommends that hunters throw away infected animals, there’s a difference between theoretically throwing an animal away, and the reality of actually carrying 200 pounds of meat that you’d planned on eating all year to the dumpster.

I talked with Dave Clarendon, a rancher and outfitter near Story, Wyoming, who said he’d watched a friend die of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease three years ago. It couldn’t be linked to CWD – Creutzfeldt-Jakob spontaneously occurs in one out of every 1 million people. The autopsy showed his friend had holes in his brain the size of pencils. Clarendon believes he could have contracted the disease from a sick animal — that CWD crossed the species barrier from ungulate to human. He blames wildlife officials for not issuing enough warnings or spending enough money seeking a solution. It is, he says, a “moral issue.”It’s the uncertainty — not knowing whether CWD will or won’t transmit to humans — that stokes our fears, inspiring ominous headlines about “zombie deer.”

Over coffee at a local diner, Keith Culver, a former Wyoming Game and Fish commissioner and fourth-generation Wyomingite, shook his head over the problem. He said he understands the tiny risk of CWD. But he’s considered not hunting elk or deer again. What if a meat processor runs a CWD-positive animal through the grinder right before his?

I hate to skip hunting, but CWD scares me.”

“My wife far prefers elk to beef, but I’m to the point where, eh, maybe I’ll just eat beef,” Culver told me. “And I was a commissioner. I shouldn’t be like that. … I hate to skip hunting, but CWD scares me.”

Culver isn’t alone, said Hank Edwards, wildlife disease specialist with Wyoming’s Game and Fish. The department doesn’t require testing, but Edwards received almost 6,000 samples in 2018 — more than three times as many as in 2014.

The free test analyzes lymph node tissue from an animal’s neck. Hunters can remove a sample, but the marble-sized bit of white can be tricky to find, buried in glands, muscle and blood.

Edwards calls hunters with positive test results. When a Mississippi hunter heard the news, he burned his clothes, cellphone and got rid of his gun. Others have trashed their freezers, concerned the disease could contaminate other food.

Yet one hunter responded: “Thanks for letting me know. I’m still eating it.”

STANDING IN A GAME AND FISH PARKING LOT that fall day, we watched as Justin Binfet dug into the base of our elk’s head with forceps and blue rubber gloves. The wildlife coordinator placed a lymph node in a small bag and sealed and labeled it. The results could take between two and three weeks.

He’s talked to many hunters like us recently, people weighing the health impacts against the loss of a hunting heritage that is as much about a year’s worth of food as it is our lifestyle and connection with the land.

Binfet tells hunters to follow recommendations from the CDC and WHO. But he also asks us to have some perspective; E. coli and salmonella outbreaks have actually killed people, but most of us are still eating cantaloupe and spinach. Binfet worries about hunters staying home out of fear over something that hasn’t been proven.

“We will lose a key way to manage wildlife.” 

“We will lose a key way to manage wildlife,” he said. Not just in a loss of license fees but also the ability to control herds and possibly prevent spread of CWD.

At home, our elk hung in a cooled garage before we began the days-long process of removing rump for roasts, slicing backstraps for steaks and grinding bits of scrap for hamburger. We wrapped pieces in plastic and butcher paper, then labeled them with the cut and year, taking turns tending to the meat and watching our daughter play in the yard.

The process usually fills me with a primal sense of satisfaction, an awareness of where our food came from, start to finish. But I couldn’t shake the cloud of disease, the unanswered question of what we would do if it was positive — or the bigger question of if we could keep hunting.

Two weeks after we carried the bull out of the woods, I contacted the lab in southeast Wyoming. The results were negative. I called Josh at work to tell him, and heard the relief in his voice.

One year’s question was answered, but I kept thinking about the next year, and the year after that. Someday, we’ll be confronted with a positive result, as will other hunters as the disease spreads. Hunting may be the best way to control chronic wasting disease. Yet we’ll all have to grapple with whether to keep doing it, or give up this tradition that ties our families to the land.  

Christine Peterson has written about wildlife and the environment for the past decade from her home in Wyoming. Her first story for HCN was about landlocked public land. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.