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North Dakota Game and Fish highlights new CWD management plan that takes effect in 2023

Among the highlights in the Game and Fish Department’s 2023-2027 CWD Management Plan are new regulations governing the transport of big game carcasses within the state and a change in how often the department samples hunting units for CWD.

ND buck.jpg
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has added deer hunting Unit 2B in the Red River Valley to its list of hunter-harvest surveillance sites for chronic wasting disease after a whitetail buck shot last fall on the Minnesota side of the Red River southwest of Climax tested positive. Game and Fish has developed a new CWD Management Plan that takes effect in 2023.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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BISMARCK – Beginning in the fall of 2023, big game hunters in North Dakota will see some changes in regulations and procedures aimed at mitigating the spread of chronic wasting disease, the brain disease that is fatal to deer, elk and moose.

Among the highlights in the Game and Fish Department’s 2023-2027 CWD Management Plan are new regulations governing the transport of big game carcasses within the state and a change in how often the department samples hunting units for CWD, said Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for Game and Fish in Bismarck.

The department’s existing CWD management plan dates back to the early 2000s, before CWD had been found in the state, Bahnson said. The disease first was detected in 2009 in Unit 3F2 in southwestern North Dakota.

“We’ve been trying to follow the science and follow the disease as it’s been found around the state, but 20 years later, it was time to take a more comprehensive look,” Bahnson said.

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Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Game and Fish outlined the new 2023-2027 CWD Management Plan during recent meetings in Fargo, Dickinson and Minot, which each drew about 30 to 40 people, Bahnson says. A task force of Game and Fish personnel from various sections within the department developed the new plan, Bahnson says, based on CWD management plans from other states and best practices outlined by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and others.

North Dakota now has 70 confirmed cases of CWD, all in wild deer, and a high percentage of those positive cases has occurred within the past decade. Most of the CWD-positive units are in the western part of the state, although hunting unit 2B in the Red River Valley between Grand Forks and south of Fargo now is listed as a CWD surveillance unit after a single whitetail buck tested positive for the disease last fall near Climax on the Minnesota side of the river.

Game and Fish establishes a CWD surveillance unit within 25 miles of any positive case, even if it's in a neighboring state or province.

Carcass transport change

Perhaps the biggest change in the new management plan involves the transport of whole carcasses or high-risk body parts such as the brain and spinal column from big game taken in CWD-positive areas of North Dakota. Under the plan, hunters beginning in 2023 will be able to transport whole carcasses and high-risk body parts anywhere in the state, even if the animal was taken in an area known to have CWD.

The prions that cause CWD are most abundant in the brain and spinal column and persist on the landscape indefinitely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a prion is an "abnormal, pathogenic agent" that causes otherwise healthy proteins in the brain to fold abnormally, which leads to brain damage and a wasting-away of infected animals.

Current regulations, which remain in effect for this fall’s hunting seasons, prohibit the movement of whole carcasses or high-risk body parts from CWD-infected hunting units everywhere in the state except between adjacent CWD-infected units.

“That made a lot of sense early on when we had the disease in one particular unit, but as we’ve continued to add (CWD-positive) units in the last few years, the value of that restriction has kind of decreased,” Bahnson said. “Moving forward, you have two options to manage that risk: One is trying to keep stuff where it is and two is trying to influence what happens to it on the back end.”

In adopting the second option, Bahnson says, the new regulations will require hunters to dispose of carcasses and high-risk body parts at a landfill or through a waste-hauler.

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“The top options you have moving forward are either leave that stuff at the location of harvest – which is good, it’s not spreading the disease – or making sure that it ends up in the landfill after you’ve transported it to wherever you plan to move it,” Bahnson said. “That’s a pretty big change, and it applies to any animal harvested in the state.”

The change only applies to big game taken in North Dakota, Bahnson says. Hunters bringing in big game from other states must continue to transport either quarters or boned-out meat.

“For example, if you harvest an elk in Montana, you would still have to go through the same processes as you did before,” he said.

New sampling strategy

Also on tap beginning in 2023, the department will sample hunting units less frequently, but more thoroughly, Bahnson says. Currently, the department tries to sample about one-third of the state every year, an approach he describes as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Instead, the department will split the state into fifths and sample hunting units every five years.

“Once a unit comes up every five years, we’ll set a surveillance goal and continue to test and get samples until we reach that goal,” Bahnson said.

Hunters also can request free self-service sampling kits from Game and Fish.

Despite the controversy that surrounds the practice of baiting for deer, the new plan will allow hunters to continue baiting on private land in units where CWD hasn’t been detected, Bahnson says.

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“The topic of baiting generates a lot of spirited discussion,” Bahnson said. “Ultimately, we decided within the task force that this compromise was the best route for moving forward. We get a lot of folks that want us to go statewide (with a baiting ban) and a lot of folks that don’t like it being restricted in any way.

“We’re trying to balance the known disease risk with the fact that some folks really enjoy baiting.”

Other aspects of the new plan include issuing more tags to increase harvest pressure in areas where the prevalence of CWD reaches 5%. If a unit reaches 10% prevalence, “that’s when we would start to really consider some more out-of-the-box options,” Bahnson said, such as establishing management subunits in portions of a particular hunting unit where CWD infections are particularly high.

Currently, unit 3F2 has a prevalence of 4.9% in mule deer and “a little bit lower” in whitetail, Bahnson says, while unit 3A1 in the far northwest corner of the state last year had a prevalence of 6.9% in mule deer.

The new CWD plan will allow the department to adjust regulations and policies as the need arises, Bahnson says.

“We really did write this with the idea that it’s adaptive in nature,” he said. “We have a general plan for how we'd like to proceed in the next five years, but as new information comes in, as new information is yielded by science, we will certainly fold that into how we work moving forward.”

More info: https://gf.nd.gov/node/5796 .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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