Former Wyoming Game and Fish disease specialist John Henningsen extracts lymph nodes from a hunter's mule deer at the Alpine hunter check station in 2012. Analyzing the nodes in a laboratory is the method of determining whether a deer has been infected by Chronic Wasting Disease. (Wyoming Game and Fish/Mark Gocke)

2019 was a great hunting season for me. My 75-year-old father nearly harvested his 12th Wyoming bull elk with a bow. After years of hoarding non-resident preference points, my nephew traveled from Michigan and was able to connect on a nice muley buck in the northern Wind River mountains. I capped it off with a mature whitetail buck near Lander in November. 

The most anticipated, if not the best, news was finding out that both bucks tested negative for chronic wasting disease

You may wonder why that part of it is so important to me. I’m a life-long hunter, and a physician. I have an interest in spending my fall enjoying all that the Wyoming outdoors have to offer while harvesting healthy wild protein for my freezer. At the same time, I want to ensure that my family, my patients and I can safely enjoy that meat without fear of getting a disease. 

CWD is a fatal disease that can affect all members of the cervid family, including deer, elk and moose. So far, CWD has not shown the ability to transmit to humans. There is a similar prion disease that humans do contract, called Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is also fatal. A 2004 study from the Center for Disease Control study did not find a definitive link between consuming venison and Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease. 

Despite the lack of a direct link between the two, both the CDC and Wyoming Game and Fish recommend against eating venison from an infected animal. 

Why? For starters, an ongoing study by Canadian scientists has revealed some concerning results. These studies involve prion transmission to macaque monkeys, because their “species protectiveness” is thought to be similar to humans. CWD has a long “latency” period, meaning an infected animal can be symptom-free for years, potentially passing the disease while appearing healthy. 

The significantly longer lifespan of humans in comparison to deer and elk causes me a lot of concern, especially for young people. This study will take years to complete, in the meantime we are left with uncertainty over the ability of CWD prions to transfer to humans. 

I’ve practiced medicine in Wyoming for more than 25 years, doing my best to keep my fellow Wyoming residents healthy and happy so we can all enjoy the great outdoors together. At the same time, I frequently travel back to the Midwest to hunt with family in Michigan and Wisconsin. The Midwest hunting culture is at least as deeply rooted as it is here in Wyoming, and that culture has been drastically altered as a result of CWD. 

There, game biologists proposed early interventions to slow the spread of CWD. This was based on the prevalent scientific opinions showing the potential of prion transmission via close contact and even in the soil. Those early interventions in Wisconsin were unsuccessful — primarily due to a lack of public support and special-interest legislative lobbying. 

As we look at our own game herds here in Wyoming, it will be important to learn from both successes and failures of other states. Management of elk feedgrounds in particular will need serious evaluation with thought toward the potential long-term impacts to our game herd, hunting culture, economy and human health. Deer farms, which we have thankfully resisted here, are seen as a potential source of infection as well. 

CWD is a problem. Unfortunately, it is a problem with a lot of unknowns. So what do we do? I suggest we take what proactive measures we can. 

We can make use of the information that is already out there. Wyoming Game and Fish in December released a new draft management plan for CWD, and its website features a host of information. The CDC and other states also have information to share. It’s important to understand that most of this information is intended to help keep us safe and healthy while we work to fully comprehend the health risk posed to humans from CWD. 

As hunters, we can help by continuing to hunt and harvest wild animals. Contributing samples from our harvest to WGF’s ongoing CWD disease surveillance efforts will help in gathering data needed to learn more about the disease while allowing us to know the infection status of our harvest. If the animal tests negative, we can confidently enjoy sharing the harvest meals with our family. 

All parts of an animal that tests positive should be destroyed per current recommendations. The current CWD testing process is quite accurate but there is still a very rare chance that a deer testing negative still has the disease, so it’s still a sensible precaution to avoid the brain, spinal tissue and lymph nodes while processing. 

It’s also important to talk about these issues with all interested parties. Ranchers, outfitters, scientists, public health providers, hunters and non-hunters who enjoy eating venison all have a stake in the game. The potential impacts would reach every corner of our state. Culturally. Economically. Physically. 

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The other option is to stick with the status quo. We do nothing different, business as usual. Often this is the easiest thing to do. It requires no real effort and no foresight. It requires none of the fortitude that comes with tough choices. But this option, the easy way, will have consequences. 

Scientists have studied this disease for more than 50 years. Different states have had varying successes and failures. Poor communications and a lack of teamwork between wildlife management professionals and the public have often hindered efforts to manage CWD. The latency period of the disease itself forces us to take a long-term approach to both information gathering and management. 

If I’ve learned anything in my quarter-century in Wyoming, it’s that we tend to balk at taking the “easy way out.” I’m hopeful that we can come together and look to the future of our hunting culture for our kids, grandkids and beyond. 

I want to protect not only their hunting heritage but also their chance at enjoying a sustainable, clean environment, for both their own health and that of the deer, elk and moose herds. What kind of ancestors do we want to be to those who come after us? 

 

Brian Gee

Brian Gee is a physician and avid outdoorsman. He has lived in Wyoming for over 25 years practicing ER and primary care medicine. He currently resides in Lander.

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  1. One of the reasons I stopped hunting big game is CWD. Besides not wanting to eat the meat if an animal tested positive, I wouldn’t want to waste the meat either. Plus, the G&F doesn’t provide you with another license for free if the animal does test positive. Other CWD states do give hunters free replacement licenses, which encourages a higher harvest of deer or elk.

  2. Wyoming game and fish does not care about humane health ,history has proven this when they did not mention anything about the wolf tape worm issue when the Feds were bringing in northern wolves into the lower 48 and intra ducing a new and potentially fatal paracite to all mammals.

  3. Thanks to WYO File for your article Dr Gee. It was very well written from a human health perspective!
    My background:
    I too have lived in Wyoming for almost 30 years now. I am also an avid outdoors man and have been a licensed guide for about 20 years with a very direct interest in the CWD “Human Health connection.”
    I have attended the two public meetings in Sheridan about the CWD issue and have written several letters pertaining to Game And Fish involvement in CWD management. In addition, I also personally knew of a gent in our town who succumbed to CJD, (and he was an avid outdoors man as well).

    You mentioned the proposed CWD management plan developed by Game and Fish’s Volunteer Work Group.

    While I commend this working group’s efforts to produce such diverse management recommendations, I feel that the plan, as presented on the official Game and Fish web site, leaves much to be desired.
    It is 149 pages long, with an unexplained gap in which pages 75 through 116 simply do not exist! ? This plan goes in circles with repetitious lists, comments, graphs and recommendations which are quite difficult to follow for common folk like myself.

    Game and Fish has requested public input about the plan in which the period allowed for comments ends on 15 January. (Tomorrow) If you actually go to their web site, I might ask you read it and decide for yourself how easy it is to comprehend the message.

    Your concern about human health parallels my own.

    In fact, when I publicly asked Game and Fish about the human health aspect, the official in front of us quipped “If you break your leg, you don’t go to Game and Fish for help… you go to the hospital.” He then correctly went on to explain that they manage game, not human health concerns. The obvious implications is that the Game and Fish is not overly concerned about our health. ?

    But they want our ‘support’ on developing a plan?

    In light of his retort (meant to be funny), I did the following…

    I have called the Center for Disease control (CDC), on the matter. I have also had a one hour phone call with the Wyoming Dept of Health as well. BOTH agencies implied that they do not work with Wyoming Game and Fish directly but with the caveat that both are NOW doing so on a limited basis.

    Further…

    Much to my comfort, BOTH agencies informed me that they are conducting research on your topic of transference of CWD to humans! (Using an actual human test group!) Of course I was told that these ‘studies’ logically take tens of years to accumulate data, and that progress has yet to be accrued to the point of release of findings. (Makes perfect sense to me.) But I thought that these two agencie’s efforts (Human test groups on CWD transference), COULD have been included as part of our public meetings?

    To continue…

    Your mention of the Canadian study is quite important, but i was reminded that to date there has been no successful duplication of this study’s findings, (which is crucial to verify any research findings), but that the hopes are to either duplicate those findings or dispel them.

    I’ll conclude by making the following suggestions to all who read your article, and any comments submitted about it.
    (1) We need to harp on our public agencies to enhance their outreach with easy to comprehend management recommendations. (I challenge each and every one of you to attempt to read the 149 page CWD Management Plan presently on display at their web site). You can then draw your own conclusions as to how, or if, this document portrays an ‘easy to comprehend’ plan.
    (2) Game and Fish should be reminded of our human health concerns via a public effort to seek transparency on any and all CWD research if they want public support and cooperation in gathering CWD data. (The proposed plan does indeed recommend establishing communications with other agencies on the matter.)

    I simply felt that someone in the Game and Fish has dropped the ball when publishing that confusing 149 page document. As a guide, i am oftentimes asked what Wyoming Game and Fish is doing about CWD from non resident hunters. My education on the matter helps perpetuate the purchase of those expensive non resident tags, which fuel the Game and Fish budget.

    Having said that, I’ll part with a heartfelt “Thank You” to all in the volunteer work group who faced a tough job trying to piece together ANY plan to combat such a difficult problem.

    I would hope that Game and Fish not only reads your article, but posts their own comments here if they truly seek public input with an effort to gain our trust. Presently, I feel they need to do more in this arena without merely holding public meetings where they tend to sidestep the human health issue.

  4. Excellent article and perspective. Hopefully hunters will help by submitting samples for testing to help track the spread of this disease. I wonder if Game and Fish are also sampling road kill as this would help to. Thanks Dr. Gee for taking the time to submit this as I know you are busy keeping people healthy.