“A quiet crowd,” mused Dale Garner, pondering the nearly 400 people crowded into Johnson’s Reception Hall in Elkader

Perhaps the hunters, landowners, and others who’d come to learn more about the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Clayton County were simply resigned to the fact that the deadly deer disease had arrived. With CWD in Wisconsin since at least 2002, and its 2013 documentation in Allamakee County, how long could Clayton County continue to dodge the bullet?

CWD especially affects the brain, spinal fluid, and lymph nodes of deer. Symptoms may not appear for several years, but the always-fatal disease eventually will cause the animal to virtually waste away.

Deformed proteins called “prions” cause CWD. Unlike infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses, prions don’t cause the animal to produce antibodies. The prions can be spread to other animals through direct contact, saliva, and other bodily fluids. Prions also may survive in the soil or elsewhere in the environment for years. They can only be killed by temperatures of 1600 degrees F or more.

CWD – which can affect deer, elk, moose, and reindeer – was first discovered in Colorado in 1967. It has since spread to Wyoming, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota, and other states.

Garner, who heads the Conservation and Recreation Division of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, tried to offer a little good news about the Clayton County situation. The afflicted deer, found northwest of Elkader during the December shotgun deer hunting season, is the first out of more than 7,000 that have been tested in Clayton County since 2002. It could be an isolated case. IF we move swiftly, we may be able to stem the spread.

                         Standing Room Only
                      (photo by Joleen Jansen)

But, in reality, it’s sobering to have to admit that CWD is here in our county’s wild deer herd, which arguably has been the best in the state. Perhaps it was just a matter of time. Hunters first shot a deer that tested positive for CWD near Harpers Ferry during the 2013 shotgun season. Sixteen more cases have been found in that area through early this year.

What’s the future? For now, DNR officials are asking hunters and landowners to use free scientific collection permits to kill about 250-300 deer from a surveillance zone in about a 5-mile radius around the site where the afflicted deer was shot. The permits will be valid Feb. 18-March 5.

DNR biologists will check collected animals and remove lymph nodes to be tested for CWD. If the test is negative, the venison may be consumed or donated to the Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program. Any deer that test positive will be disposed of in a landfill.

Garner said shooting the deer in the surveillance zone would help determine if there are more animals affected, while also reducing deer populations. Lower deer numbers – below the herds of 100 or more that sometimes have been seen in that part of the county – could slow possible transmission of the disease.

Garner also discouraged the practice of feeding deer, or establishing mineral or salt licks, which unnaturally causes large concentrations of whitetails, and thus increases the likelihood of animal-to-animal contact. Hunters also should dispose of deer carcasses in heavy-duty plastic bags in landfills, rather than leaving them on the landscape.

Scientists do not believe that CWD can be transmitted to humans – but the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization warn against eating meat from infected deer. Garner recommended that hunters who dress a deer suspected of carrying CWD wear rubber gloves and disinfect their equipment with a strong bleach solution.


What a change since I shot my first Iowa white-tailed deer more than 54 years ago! Or since my son shot his first deer 25 years ago. Or even since two of my grandsons harvested deer within the last two years.

Will our family – and other Iowa families – be able to continue this tradition . . .?

CWD Surveillance Zones
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