Illinois deer hunting: State moved to new, faster CWD testing; waiting on call on deer check stations

Illinois moved to a new, faster system of testing for chronic wasting disease in deer; and, so far, plans for deer check stations during the firearms seasons have not been formally announced.

SHARE Illinois deer hunting: State moved to new, faster CWD testing; waiting on call on deer check stations
Wildlife biologists Stefanie Fitzsimons (back, taking samples for CWD) and Emma Trone (right, recording information) check in a deer at the McHenry County check station on opening day of Illinois’ firearm deer season in November, 2019; there is a different faster CWD test this year and procedures at check stations in 2020 have not been formally announced yet. Credit: Dale Bowman

Wildlife biologists Stefanie Fitzsimons (back, taking samples for CWD) and Emma Trone (right, recording information) check in a deer at the McHenry County check station on opening day of Illinois’ firearm deer season in November, 2019; there is a different faster CWD test this year and procedures at check stations in 2020 have not been formally announced yet.

Dale Bowman

Somehow, this fits 2020.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is using, generally, a different testing system for chronic wasting disease.

It’s faster.

That matters because over the next several weeks harvest by bowhunters will spike during the rut. Then comes the two firearm seasons, when the bulk of Illinois’ deer harvest occurs.

“Yes, the majority of our CWD tissue samples are now going to the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” emailed Dan Skinner, forest wildlife program manager for the IDNR. “Previously, we used a testing process known as immunohistochemistry (IHC) to test our tissue samples for the abnormal prion protein that causes CWD. The tissues were lymph nodes and a piece of the brainstem known as the obex, and these were fixed in a formalin solution before testing.

“The new process we are utilizing is an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) that tests fresh or frozen lymph nodes. The benefit to hunters and the Department should be a much faster turn-around time for test results. Yes, we may still have a bit of a backlog after firearm season, but we don’t anticipate the long delays that we experienced the last couple years.”

The old testing system, especially after the firearm seasons, could be backed up as much as eight weeks. That’s a long time to hold a pile of venison in a freezer while waiting for results of CWD testing. It is recommended to not eat venison from a deer with CWD.

CWD is a prion disease that affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose, according to the CDC. It’s a fatal disease of the central nervous system.

Illinois had its first case of CWD confirmed in a wild deer (from Boone County) on Nov. 1, 2002. Illinois has had confirmed cases in 18 counties: Boone, Carroll, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Jo Daviess, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, LaSalle, Livingston, McHenry, Ogle, Stephenson, Will, Winnebago. Cook was new in FY2020, while Lake had no confirmed cases in FY2020.

Illinois had become the model for how to deal with CWD in its prized wild deer herd. But, during FY2020, there was a notable change, as noted in the 2019-2020 CWD Annual Summary:

The number of CWD positive deer detected nearly doubled in FY2020, with a corresponding increase in overall prevalence. Increases occurred in the northern border counties of Jo Daviess, Stephenson, Boone, and McHenry. The Illinois River counties of Grundy and LaSalle showed increases as well. Prior to this year, prevalence rates in CWD counties had remained low and increased only slightly (0.08% per year since 2003). However, the doubling of the prevalence rate noted in 2020 (1.6% increase) is a departure from that pattern and cause for great concern.

For years, on opening days, I visited check stations. In counties with positive results for CWD, successful hunters need to bring their deer to check stations during the two firearm seasons. Successful archery hunters may submit samples at drop-off sites.

It was quite the graphic scene to watch biologists extract the brain stem and lymph from deer, if hunters gave permission. One biologist would be “The Cutter.” Others would gather information on where the deer was harvested, age the deer by checking their teeth and ask hunters if they had seen feral hogs, wild turkeys or bobcats.

Back to 2020. For weeks, the IDNR has had a series of protocols prepped, according to a source, to hold deer check stations again during the firearm seasons. Those protocols are not official until cleared by the Governor’s office.

In general, the check system should be the same, according to the source, but with protocols most of us are used to doing. Masks will be worn by hunters and IDNR staff while interacting. Only one hunter will be out of the vehicle to check maps. Everything will be done outside. Interaction will be minimal.

Hunters will need to move along after checking in. That is a major change. One joy of check stations, in previous years, was hunters walking around and looking at deer other hunters had bagged.

Formal word should come shortly on protocols.

Information on chronic wasting disease in Illinois is at https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/programs/CWD/.

File photo of an IDNR deer check station sign. Credit: Dale Bowman

File photo of an IDNR deer check station sign.

Dale Bowman

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