BISMARCK -- Another 18 deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease in North Dakota during the 2020 hunting season, the Game and Fish Department said this week. That brings the total of confirmed positive cases to 44 since 2009, when the disease first was detected in southwest North Dakota.

CWD is a brain disease that’s always fatal to deer, elk and moose.

According to Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for Game and Fish in Bismarck, department staff tested about 2,700 animals – 1,089 mule deer, 1,542 whitetails, 123 moose and “50 some” elk – during the 2020 hunting season.

Of the positive cases, 14 came from hunting unit 3F2, two came from unit 3A1 and one from unit 4B. In addition, a white-tailed deer sampled from unit 3A2 also tested positive and was the first detection from that unit, Bahnson said.

Overall, about 7% of hunters turned in deer heads for testing in units where Game and Fish was targeting its surveillance efforts, Bahnson said, a percentage he’d like to see increase.

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The highest percentage came from 3F2, where about 9.5% of hunters with tags submitted heads for testing; other units were only in the 3% to 4% range, Bahnson said.

“That results in us not testing a lot of deer so there’s not a terribly high level of confidence about what’s going on,” he said. “Overall, we would certainly like to see a much higher portion of deer turned in.”

Submitting deer, elk and moose heads from units targeted for CWD surveillance is voluntary in North Dakota.

“It’s an issue we’ve been confronting since we started testing deer and trying to figure out how to get better participation,” Bahnson said. “But I haven’t cracked the code yet, unfortunately.”

Taxidermists and meat lockers played a key role in helping the department collect animal heads for testing, Bahnson said. Ideally, he said the department would like to see 12% to 13% of hunters, at minimum, contribute to the testing effort in the targeted areas.

Part of the problem, he says, is that many hunters think a deer that appears fine doesn’t have CWD or need to be tested. In reality, animals with CWD generally don’t take on the classic emaciated appearance until the latter stages of the disease.

“Unfortunately, that’s a pretty common misconception,” Bahnson said. “Most of our positive hunter-harvested deer look perfectly healthy. The only way to know for sure is if you get it tested.”

Based on the sampling results, the infection rate in unit 3F2 was 5.1% in mule deer and 2.2% in white-tailed deer; it was less than 2% in other positive units. But without a higher percentage of animals being tested, it’s hard to say whether those numbers accurately reflect what’s happening on the landscape, Bahnson said.

“For every positive that we find, you’ve got to assume there probably are quite a few that are harvested and never tested,” he said. “Overall, we did see an increase in the infection rate in 3F2, and we also found some deer in a new unit, 3A2, which is almost in the central part of the state, and so we’ll really need to try to get our testing numbers up in those adjacent units and then around 3A2.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the department to scale back its planned testing effort for 2020, Bahnson said. Originally, Game and Fish had planned to sample central North Dakota hunting units, as well, but put that on hold until the 2021 hunting season.

“We ended up prioritizing units that either had CWD or were adjacent to positive units,” Bahnson said. “We used fewer staff and put longer days in to get the surveillance done.”

For more information on CWD in North Dakota, check out the Game and Fish Department website at gf.nd.gov.

This story has been updated with more information.