Despite the many unknowns about chronic wasting disease, hunters don’t seem to be moving away from hunting deer, at least in North Dakota, based on results from a 2016 study of North Dakota deer hunters by UND graduate student Kristen Black.

According to Jay Boulanger, a UND assistant professor of wildlife ecology and human dimensions, about 90% of the hunters sampled in the study said the presence of CWD in the state hadn’t caused them to hunt deer less.

“That suggests to me that hunters are generally not concerned about the presence of CWD in terms of it affecting whether or not they decide to keep hunting deer,” said Boulanger, who assisted with the survey along with Bill Jensen of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and Robert Newman of UND’s biology department faculty.

Brad Olson
Brad Olson

Brad Olson of Grand Forks, who hunts deer with his sons Carter, 13, and Jackson, 8, in both North Dakota and Minnesota, said the topic comes up in his house when they watch hunting shows on TV.

Venison is a big part of the menu in their home, Olson says, and they make everything from burger to jerky, snack sticks and pastrami from the deer they kill.

“CWD should be a concern for all hunters that spend as much time in the woods as my boys and I do, but it doesn’t cause fear or sleepless nights for me,” Olson said. “Now if CWD was found near where I hunt, I would probably ask more questions about how it could impact my family and I.”

As a deer hunter, Boulanger said he’d be concerned about butchering and consuming deer where there’s CWD or any number of other worrisome diseases in areas where testing wasn't available.

“I personally prefer hunting in an area that is known or suspected to be free of any number of diseases,” Boulanger said. “I think that overall in North Dakota and even Minnesota, the majority of deer hunting occurs in areas where there’s no recorded cases of CWD, so really, these are confined to relatively smaller areas.

“That being said, CWD is a concerning disease because it’s expected to spread through other parts of the country.”

Matt Culhane, a UND senior fisheries and wildlife biology major from Rushford, Minn., who hunts in the CWD zone of southeast Minnesota, said he also is concerned about the disease but not enough to stop hunting.

Matt Culhane
Matt Culhane

That’s a welcome theme, experts say.

“I think the key message here is first of all, know where you’re hunting,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy — best known as CIDRAP — at the University of Minnesota. “What I mean by that is, ‘Is there evidence of CWD in that area?’ For the vast majority of Minnesota, we have no evidence of CWD in wild deer.”

Test if necessary

That’s also true in North Dakota, but hunters in any CWD-infected area definitely should get their deer tested, Osterholm says, even if it’s not required like it is in Minnesota.

“Don’t stop hunting; please don’t stop hunting,” he said. “If we did not end up having hunting in these areas, it would only become a bigger problem. But if you are in an area like that, we do think it’s really important that you get the animal tested.”

Like other hunters, Culhane says he would like to see a field test that could provide faster results. In North Dakota, Game and Fish staff remove the lymph nodes from the heads they collect and send them to Colorado State University, which provides results in two to three weeks, Bahnson says. In Minnesota, test results are available in about a week, according to the DNR website.

The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine is at the forefront of efforts to develop faster diagnostic tests, but for now, more research is needed, health experts say.

“I think we’re a long way off from having a test that is going to be done in the field,” Osterholm said. “I think we have to be very careful about overpromising on that.

“We’re going to have to do the best we can with the tests that we have, and in that case, we need to make sure they’re more available; that’s what’s really important.”