HURON, S.D. — In an attempt to reduce spreading the deadly Chronic Wasting Disease, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department is planning to implement new changes for the 2020 deer hunting season.
During the GF&P’s final CWD open house Wednesday in Huron, GF&P Wildlife Program Administrator Chad Switzer unveiled preventative measures aimed at reducing the spread of the disease that’s been depleting the state’s deer and elk population since the first known case in 1997.
“The overall goal is to reduce the spread, because we know it’s been here for over 20 years,” Switzer said to a group of hunters during the open house. “We are seeing CWD spread in other states more rapidly, but we want to be proactive in trying to eliminate this and help save our deer and elk populations.”
CWD is a fatal neurological disease found in elk, moose, reindeer, mule deer and white-tailed deer, and is caused by an abnormal and indestructible prion protein in the brain of the afflicted animal. According to Switzer, the rare disease is easily transmissible and always fatal. Symptoms can vary, making it difficult to identify afflicted deer, Switzer said.
Using a new method for disposing of deer carcasses after the animal has been butchered is a primary focus for the GF&P’s potential solutions to eliminate the spread of CWD. Switzer noted the disease isn’t transmissible to humans, as there’s been no confirmed cases of CWD found in humans.
“We want to limit the likelihood of someone disposing a potential CWD afflicted deer carcass into an area where we know we don’t have any confirmed cases,” Switzer said, noting the Black Hills as being the area with the most confirmed cases. “We would like to see all of the carcasses be taken to a licensed landfill.”
There are currently 25 licensed facilities in South Dakota permitted to dispose of deer and elk carcasses, which Switzer acknowledged may pose a challenge for hunters. Along with carcass disposal, taxidermy operations are also an area of focus for some of the new regulations the GF&P is hoping to implement in combating CWD.
“We want to work with taxidermists and plan to offer help in showing them proper ways of deer carcass disposal,” he said. “It’s going to be a long-term commitment, but we need to think about the future of our deer and elk.”
Because CWD can be transmitted through saliva, urine, feces, and other bodily fluids, some states have out-right banned natural urine-based products used for hunting, along with enforcing other strict regulations. Wyoming and Colorado represent the states with the most prevalence of CWD found in their deer and elk populations, which have prompted the enforcement of more regulations.
“South Dakota doesn’t have any restrictions at the moment in regards to carcass disposal and CWD, and we have very liberal rules and regulations,” Switzer said.
While the majority of deer and elk confirmed with CWD have been detected in the southwest portion of the state, there was a recent confirmed case of CWD found in a captive elk on March 21 in the town of Clark, South Dakota.
In 2017, Switzer said the GF&P conducted a sample study on elk and deer in Custer State Park to calculate the prevalence rate in that particular area. According to the 2017-2018 sampling period, Switzer said there was a 15 percent CWD prevalence rate found in elk, while mule deer had a 25 percent prevalence rate.
“Those prevalence rates are alarming, and we’re not saying the sky is falling, but we need to address this,” Switzer said. “We’re looking at this disease 20 to 30 years from now, and it has the potential to cause some serious harm to our deer population in the future.”
In the GF&P’s 20 years of monitoring the disease, there have been 203 elk and 194 deer that have tested positive for CWD. Of that figure, Switzer said Wind Cave National Park in Custer, South Dakota is the area with the most confirmed cases of CWD, as 126 elk and 10 deer from those locations have tested positive in that time-span.
The only viable test for detecting CWD is a post-mortem test, which means the animal has to be deceased. Switzer said ongoing testing for the disease will primarily be done through using road kill deer and elk in areas with high prevalence rates, which consists of the southwest portion of the state. Switzer noted the test is a seven to 10 day process.
Switzer wrapped up the meeting and provided hunters a timeline of the next steps in drafting the new rules and regulations, which will include opportunities for public input before the final draft will be proposed to the GF&P Commission during its July meeting.
“We want to work with our hunters as much as we can throughout this process,” Switzer said. “We have to stay out in front of this disease to maintain the great deer and elk hunting our state has to offer.”