September 2018
From Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

What You Need to Know About CWD Before You Hunt

Regarding CWD, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure!


With hunting season beginning in many western states this month, there are some very important things you need to know about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) before you head out hunting. CWD was first recognized as a disease syndrome in 1967 in a captive mule deer research facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. It is a fatal neurological disease of caribou, deer, elk, and moose that has been classified in the group of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs).

These diseases are believed to be the result of infectious, self-propagating "prion" proteins. Infectious prions are normal cell proteins that mutate in such a way that they cause disease. Although considerable research by wildlife health officials is ongoing, the overall biological and epidemiological understanding of CWD remains poor. Chronic wasting disease is closely related to TSEs in other species, including Scrapie in sheep, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease) in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans.

CWD attacks the central nervous system of the deer and presents symptoms including extreme weight loss, excessive salivation, odd behavior, and poor coordination. The disease is infectious, communicable and 100% fatal. CWD is insidious and has a prolonged incubation period. Many symptoms do not manifest for at least two years or longer. There is no live animal test, and you can’t look at physical symptoms to determine if a deer has CWD. Diagnosis can only be made by post-mortem testing of specific portions of the animal’s brain (i.e., obex) or lymph node tissue from the throat (i.e., medial retropharyngeal lymph nodes).

Uninfected deer can be exposed to CWD through two primary sources: 1) CWD-infected deer, and 2) CWD-contaminated environment. Once CWD arrives, it does not go away. The prions that cause the disease can persist in the environment for years. No effective way exists to sanitize infected facilities, soil, etc.

Since it is not endemic to Alabama, the most likely route for CWD to arrive here is through movement of live deer or certain deer parts from areas where CWD does occur. Alabama is being proactive in an attempt to preserve the hunting traditions we enjoy and prevent the transmission of CWD into our state. WFF has taken measures to decrease the likelihood of this happening. It has been illegal to import live deer into Alabama since the early 1970’s, and a regulation banning the importation of body parts most likely to carry the infectious prions (i.e., large bones, spinal cord, and brain) from CWD-positive states was put in place in 2016.

CWD attacks the central nervous system of the deer and presents symptoms including extreme weight loss, excessive salivation, odd behavior, and poor coordination.


This carcass importation regulation was revised to include all states, not just CWD-positive states, during the March 2018 meeting of the Conservation Advisory Board. That means it is now unlawful for persons to bring deer, elk, moose, or caribou carcasses, hides, or antlers into Alabama from any state, territory, or province unless all meat has been deboned and skull plates and hides have been completely cleaned of all brain and spinal cord tissue.

WFF recently took another progressive step with the purchase of equipment, housed at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) diagnostic lab at Auburn University, capable of screening 90 samples per batch for CWD. Prior to this, WFF or ADAI staff took samples and sent them to a laboratory in another state for CWD testing. This process was costly and extremely time-consuming, with some sample results taking more than three months to arrive back in Alabama. The partnership with ADAI will allow CWD samples to be tested much more efficiently both in timing and cost.

To date, WFF has tested more than 8,000 deer statewide and CWD has not been detected in Alabama. It has been diagnosed in free-ranging and/or captive cervids in 25 states and 2 Canadian provinces, including Alberta, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. CWD also has been detected in South Korea (elk) and Norway (reindeer and moose).

The economic impact of CWD is immense. In an attempt to locate the origin of the disease, states where CWD-positive animals have been found must resort to sampling wild and farmed herds in the region where the initial CWD-positive was found. This sampling attempts to determine the extent of the infection rate within the CWD-positive zone. Wisconsin became a CWD-positive state in 2002. In the next five fiscal years, four state agencies spent $32.3 million to address the disease and monitor its spread, both in the wild and among farm-raised deer, with the majority of the funds, $26.8 million, coming from the Wisconsin DNR.

As you can imagine, the financial impact resulting from the loss of hunters and hunting-related activities in the years following a CWD-positive test can also put a tremendous strain on already-limited budgets. The detection of CWD can be financially devastating for state wildlife agencies.

Not only is deer hunting a time-honored tradition and a way of life for many Alabama residents, it is also a huge economic engine for the state as a whole. More than $1.8 billion is spent on deer hunting in Alabama each year. Therefore, we must do everything in our power to protect one of our most precious natural resources.

WFF can’t do this alone. This isn’t a high fence vs. no fence, captive-deer breeder vs. free-range hunter, dog hunter vs. stalk hunter, or even hunter vs. non-hunter issue. This is an Alabama issue. Every person in the state needs to participate. Please help keep Alabama CWD-free by following the regulations that prohibit the importation of live deer and certain deer parts into Alabama. Even if you don’t hunt, you can help by watching our roadways and reporting any suspicious behavior that could threaten our Alabama deer herd and our hunting heritage. You can inform us of your concerns through the website at or by calling Operation Game Watch at 1-800-272-GAME (4263) 24 hours a day 7 days a week.



Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.