Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a prion disease that attacks the brain of infected deer, elk and moose.
What is CWD?
Chronic Wasting Disease is a prion disease that attacks the brain of infected deer, elk and moose. Animals in the late stages of CWD are often emaciated, show erratic behavior and exhibit neurological irregularities. However, due to the long, slow advancement of the disease, infected animals are almost always killed by predators, vehicles, hunters, or other diseases well before symptoms of CWD get bad enough for a person to recognize. To complicate matters, many of these signs can also be symptoms of other diseases. CWD is always fatal to the infected animal.
CWD was first discovered in Colorado in 1967 and in Nebraska in 2000 in Kimball County. Since 1997, the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission has tested over 57,000 deer and over 400 elk, with 1,269 deer and 19 elk testing positive for CWD to date. At this time, CWD has been detected in free-ranging deer and elk in 57 counties.
In 2022, NGPC had 1,065 deer samples and 83 elk samples tested. Of those, 274 deer and 1 elk were positive for CWD. At this time, no population declines have been attributed to the disease. More in-depth information on CWD can be found on the CWD Alliance website.
CWD testing in Nebraska
The map below illustrates the Nebraska counties and Deer Management Units where CWD has been detected.
CWD testing results
What you should know
- Currently, there is no strong evidence that CWD poses a risk for humans; however, public health officials recommend that human exposure to the CWD infectious agent be avoided as they continue to evaluate any potential health risk. People should remain cautious in how they handle, process, and consume deer. Hunters and commercial processors should avoid butchering or processing of deer that spreads spinal cord or brain tissue to meat or to the environment. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization recommend avoiding consumption of meat from deer and elk that look sick or that test positive for CWD. More information on prevention is available through the CDC.
- While the exact method of CWD transmission is unknown, there is evidence that CWD is transmitted from animal to animal through body fluids like feces, urine or saliva. Animals that are crowded or confined have a greater chance of encountering the body fluids of other animals and, therefore, a higher likelihood of becoming infected if CWD prions are present.
- CWD poses serious problems for wildlife managers, and the implications for free-ranging deer and elk are significant. While some impacts of CWD on population dynamics of deer and elk are still being researched, studies show that CWD has the potential to substantially reduce infected deer or elk populations by lowering adult survival rates and destabilizing long-term population dynamics.
Frequently asked questions
Learn the answers to the most frequently asked questions about CWD.
CWD has been detected in 57 counties in Nebraska (see map). Three new counties were identified in 2023: Rock, Blaine and Thomas counties. Prevalence is the percentage of a population that tests positive for a disease relative to the number of animals tested within a sample area (typically a Deer Management Unit).
CWD prevalence rates in Nebraska are relatively low compared to some other states (more than 30 percent in some states). However, the prevalence rate among mule deer bucks over the past 2.5 years is approximately 30 percent in the Pine Ridge Deer Management Unit. Most of the state is at less than 5 percent prevalence in units where CWD has been identified.
In 2023, lymph node samples were collected from harvested deer to be tested for chronic wasting disease at check stations during the Nov. 11-19 firearm season in the following units: Sandhills (Mule Deer), Keya Paha, Calamus West, Calamus East and Loup West (Whitetails). Submissions are voluntary from hunters, and Nebraska Game and Parks staff will collect and pay for testing. Once a quota of approximately 230 per unit is met, collections will be suspended in those respective units. Beyond sampling in the specified units, hunters can submit samples through their local veterinarian or to the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center, Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab or Wyoming State Veterinary Lab at the hunter’s expense.
Testing continues throughout the year for suspect sick deer and elk.
Clinical signs of CWD alone are not conclusive, and there is currently no practical live animal test. Currently, the only conclusive diagnosis involves an examination of the brain, tonsils or lymph nodes performed after death. Research is being conducted to develop live-animal diagnostic tests for CWD.
- Hunters should not shoot, handle or consume an elk or deer that is acting abnormally or appears to be sick.
- When field-dressing game, wear rubber gloves, minimize the use of a bone saw to cut through the brain or spinal cord (backbone), and do not cut through edible portions of meat with a blade used to cut bone. Bone out the meat. Minimize contact with and do not consume brain or spinal cord tissues, eyes, spleen or lymph nodes.
- Always wash hands thoroughly after dressing and processing game meat.
- Disinfect butchering equipment with 50/50 solution of chlorine bleach and water. CWD prions can remain viable for months or even years in the soil.
- It is recommended that hunters field dress animals at the place of kill and that the head (brain), spinal column and other carcass parts be doubled-bagged and disposed of at a licensed landfill.
A practical CWD video designed for hunters who want to learn more can be found here: CWD Video.
Currently, there is no strong evidence that CWD poses a risk for humans; however, public health officials recommend that human exposure to the CWD infectious agent be avoided as they continue to evaluate any potential health risk.
People should remain cautious in how they handle, process, and consume deer. Hunters and commercial processors should avoid butchering or processing of deer that spreads spinal cord or brain tissue to meat or to the environment.
The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization recommend avoiding consumption of meat from deer and elk that look sick or that test positive for CWD.
If you remove the skull cap with antlers attached, the saw should be cleaned and disinfected with a 50/50 solution of chlorine bleach and water. This saw should not be used to cut through any edible portions of meat on the carcass.
If you keep the entire skull (for a European mount), you should insure all flesh and soft tissue, including brain matter, is removed. Wear rubber or latex gloves while doing this, and clean the skull by soaking it in a 50/50 solution of chlorine bleach and water.
If you wish to transport the entire skull or anything more than a cleaned skull cap into another state, contact your local state wildlife agency to determine if carcass transportation regulations apply to your area or state.
A number of states have adopted regulations affecting the transportation of hunter-harvested deer and elk. Since the suspected infective agent (prion) is concentrated in the brain, spinal cord and lymph glands, the most common regulation is the prohibition of the importation of whole carcasses harvested from CWD areas.
Generally, states that have adopted carcass transportation regulations do not allow importation of any brain or spinal column tissue, but allow processed/wrapped meat, quarters (with no spinal column or head), hides, clean antlers/skull plates with no meat or tissue attached, finished taxidermy.
Since regulations are continually evolving, it is recommended that you check the CWD regulations in your state before hunting. A summary of state-by-state carcass transportation regulations may be accessed through the clickable map: http://cwd-info.org/.
The Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center in Lincoln will test deer for CWD. Hunters also can contact their local veterinarian for assistance. Contact the NVDC prior to tissue collection or sample submission.
Visit the webpage
Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Room 230A NVDC
4040 East Campus Loop North
Lincoln, NE 68583-0907
Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory will also test hunter-harvested deer samples for CWD. Contact the KSVDL for sample submission information.
Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory Information will also test hunter-harvested deer samples for CWD. Contact the lab for sample submission information.
Test results may take up to 6-8 weeks and times will vary depending on the volume of samples submitted. Hunters should keep this in mind if test results are desired before processing deer.
How to remove a deer’s lymph nodes to test for CWD
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission disease management efforts are focused on:
- Continuing surveillance for CWD in wild cervids in Nebraska
- Ongoing communication with hunters, conservation partners and public health officials to keep up-to-date with ongoing efforts
- Continuing research in conjunction with other agencies and states to further knowledge of CWD spread, prevention and management
Purchase hunting, big game and turkey permits, as well as supertags and combo lotteries.
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