Chronic Wasting Disease, usually known as CWD, is defined as a nervous system disease typically found in the cervid family of mammals — usually referring deer, elk, moose, and reindeer. Although it’s quite a specific disease, in a hunting state like North Dakota, the threat of declining deer populations is a serious matter of concern. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department will soon be addressing the issue in a series of public seminars… but before you go, it might be best to learn a bit more about CWD and the effects it has on deer populations.

What is Chronic Wasting Disease?

CWD isn’t caused by viruses or bacteria like many illnesses we know. Rather, it’s the result of defective prions — naturally occurring proteins — that resist being broken down by a cervid’s body and promptly cause other prions inside of the animal to misfold. This process damages the deer’s nervous system, and inevitably causes its death.

Even if a deer is infected, though, there’s a good chance you won’t notice. This is mostly due to the long duration of time before an animal begins to display signs of nervous system damage. Most deer who do feel the brunt of these symptoms usually become prey to other wildlife before hunters find them. If you do end up seeing an animal you believe may have CWD, look for the following symptoms:

  • Excessive drinking and urinating
  • Excessive salivation
  • Frequent grinding of teeth
  • Wide, low stances
  • Blank expressions
  • Decreased activity
  • Erratic behavior
  • Poor body condition (emaciation)
  • A tendency to isolate from the herd
  • Loss of fear of humans

While it does take a while for CWD to fully grip a population of deer (incubation periods usually last between 12-24 months), when it does, the consequences are deadly. Major portions of a herd can quickly be culled by the disease, and the ones who do survive with it run the risk of carrying it to other herds to share the same fate.

Chronic Wasting Disease is extremely easy to spread and can be done by either direct or indirect contact with the saliva, feces, urine, flesh, or dead body of an infected deer. Even plants, ground, and soil can be carriers of the disease, as some plants will also spread and pick up prions that carry it from nearby animals. It’s especially effective at spreading in communities of cervids who often share the same feeding grounds. To date, CWD has been found in 30 states, 5 Canadian Provinces, and even as far away as Norway and South Korea.

Concerns and Cures

With all this being said, the major concerns for many with CWD stem from the worry of it being able to transfer to other animals of all kinds. While it is possible for an individual human or other animals to develop prion-based diseases like mad cow disease, testing on models like primates and genetically-modified mice has shown that there’s a significant species barrier keeping CWD from being transmitted easily to animals that do not fall into the Cervidae family. These same studies, though, do hint at a possibility of mutation, as well as some instances of macaque monkeys developing CWD as a result of eating meat from deer infected with the disease. As such, it’s often recommended that humans, too, minimize contact with herd animals that may carry Chronic Wasting Disease.

Much like other prion-based illnesses, there is no cure for CWD, so a majority of programs put forward by Game and Fish departments are primarily focused on finding and caring for populations where the disease has been identified, as well as preventing infected deer from entering more areas where it could spread. In areas where not much management has been done to help curb the disease, herds have been identified to have infection rates greater than 40%.

Countryside Countermeasures to CWD

To help combat the spread of CWD, a task force — composed of members from multiple departments — has been created to study CWD among deer populations and develop methods of combatting it. As part of this effort, the Department will be hosting three public meetings in August to discuss the spread of CWD and the Task Force’s latest updated plan to contain the disease in North Dakota.

“Chronic wasting disease presents serious concerns for the long-term health of our big game populations,” said wildlife division chief Casey Anderson in a press release. “While the status of this disease has changed considerably in North Dakota over the past two decades, we’ve also learned a lot.”

The NDGF meetings will each include formal presentations on the history, status, and future of CWD cases in North Dakota. Following the main segment, the floor will be open for individuals with concerns, questions, or comments to speak to Department staff.

August 22FargoHoliday Inn, 3803 13th Avenue South
August 24DickinsonGrand Dakota Lodge, 532 15th Street West
August 29MinotGrand Hotel, 1505 North Broadway

All meetings begin at 7 p.m. local time and are free and open for all to attend. For more information about Chronic Wasting Disease, visit