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  • Writer's pictureNorth Dakota Wildlife Federation

Hunters Help Stall CWD in 2023

The North Dakota Game & Fish Department’s (NDG&F) survey of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) – a prion-based illness of the brain and nervous system which always results in the fatality of the animals it infects - in the state netted 11 positive samples in fall of 2023. With an intensified focus on the southeastern portion of the state, the agency had no positive hits in the samples from that region and noted that those animals which did test positive came from firearms units 3A1 and 3A2 in the northwest, and 3E1, 3E2 and 3F2 in the southwest, where CWD had been detected in previous years, according to Charlie Bahnson, DVM, NDG&F Wildlife Veterinarian.

“We know that our harvest success and our deer herd is down in general for a couple

reasons, but most recently from a just a really terrible winter, a really severe winter last

year. We do expect that infected deer are going to be some of the first deer to drop off

the back of the herd under stresses like that. I would think to some degree that winter

probably selectively removed some of our positive animals, but that’s probably just a bit

of a blip. In a year-to-year, long-term trend, there might be annual little blips, but overall,

prevalence [of CWD in the state] is still fairly stable,” Bahnson states.

Some of that stability is due to hunters helping submit harvested deer for study. In total,

NDG&F agents processed approximately 2,140 samples submitted by hunters, either

through head collection sites, drop-off points, and self-sample kits offered up by the

agency last autumn. Of those, over 1700 were whitetail deer, and 370 were mule deer,

along with approximately 70 elk and a handful of moose harvested during the fall of

2023. The latter process, by which hunters request and receive a kit to hold vital

portions of the animal’s nervous system and return them for scientific review by the

agency, is one Bahnson hopes will help stem the spread of CWD in the state in the

years to come.

“About 150 of our samples came from self-sampling kits where hunters collect their own

samples and send them in. That’s a really great tool primarily because it allows us to

focus our manpower and resources in one part of the state, but it will allow testing for

anybody who wants a test result statewide,” Bahnson explains, adding the department

will expand that option in future seasons.

While the number of firearms deer tags were down in 2023 by more than 10,000, year-

over-year, and the season’s harvest percentage was off against the long-term average,

hunters still likely served as the agency’s greatest asset in not only herd management

through the harvest of a portion of the population, but also in the monitoring of CWD.

Through the efforts of just being afield, tagging a deer, and then submitting its head for

sampling, veterinarians, biologists, and scientists like Bahnson are better able to

understand the prevalence of CWD in the herd and what it bodes for the future of

hunting in the state.

“Continue to go hunting! Hunters are our best tool in managing healthy herds at an

appropriate level. Especially if we’re conducting surveillance in the unit where you’re at,

please do consider submitting a sample or getting your animal tested. Beyond that, one

big thing from this year was the disposal requirement. If you’re going to move your

animal out of the unit where it was harvested, please make sure what’s left from the

processing ends up in a landfill. Then finally, we’ve got baiting restrictions in some

places, please just do be aware of where those are in place,” Bahnson encourages

hunters in their efforts to help watch for and slow the spread of CWD.

Next year, the agency will focus its surveillance efforts on the northeastern quadrant of

the state, an area adjacent to the Canadian border where just a few miles north this

autumn a positive CWD sample was detected in a harvested deer taken near Winkler,

Manitoba, the first of its kind in the region. This was in addition to three more detections

near Climax, Minn., where two years ago a hunter-harvested whitetail also tested

positive for CWD.

By: Nick Simonson


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