Inside the Wis. DNR’s CWD Processing Center in Poynette

Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 9:02 PM CST
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POYNETTE, Wis. (WSAW) - In 1999, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources began testing white-tailed deer for Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD.

In November 2001, the state received its first positive case, the results were processed and released in 2002. In the years since hunters have been encouraged to get their deer tested for free by dropping the heads off at one of the 175 kiosks or making an appointment with a DNR specialist.

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal, infectious nervous system disease of deer, moose, elk, and reindeer/caribou. According to the DNR, CWD the prions cause abnormal folding of specific normal proteins in the tissue cells which causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals. Infected prions can also be found in the deer’s nervous system, organs, and muscle tissue - aka venison.

The disease can spread through contact with an infected animal’s saliva, urine, or feces. It can also spread indirectly through exposure to a contaminated environment like soil.

In 2022, about 1,492 deer tested positive for CWD. The highest numbers were in the Southern Farmland Zone with 1,420 testing positive. For a complete breakdown of the numbers by region click here.

According to the DNR, since testing began up until November 16, 2023, 303,358 deer have been analyzed across the state. 11,381 have tested positive.

Deer with CWD often do not show any signs of the disease until the final stages of the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people. However, some animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to certain types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk. Both the DNR and CDC recommend every deer be tested before its venison is consumed.

“So these deer don’t look sick until the very end stage. So they can have the disease for over a year and a half before they actually look sick. And when they start to look sick, it’ll be about only a month or two before they would die from the disease,” explained Erin Larson Deer herd health specialist with the DNR.

In 2021, the DNR announced that the department’s Chronic Wasting Disease Processing Center in Black Earth moved to a new facility in Poynette.

Kevin Wallenfang is the CWD Processing Center Manager. He is responsible for overseeing a staff that will test thousands of deer and lymph nodes for CWD.

After hunters submit their heads or samples, every single one goes through the Poynette facility. “I anticipate we’ll do somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10,000 deer through here,” explained Wallenfang.

The first thing staff does with the deer heads is use the jaw and teeth to age them. The data collected is given to the hunter but it’s also used to help staff set a future population estimate. Staff determine the age by looking at tooth wear and tooth replacement. “A lot of hunters just want to know how old their deer is, so we provide that to them with their results,” said Wallenfang.

Then the next step in the process is registering data forms. The DNR uses paperwork filled out by the hunter, like the DNR Customer ID, to connect the individual deer to the hunter.

After the deer is checked in, it goes to the samplers. Between archery and gun hunt, the facility runs with about 8 staff, after the gun season starts, that number will increase to 15. Wallenfang estimates each sampler will complete 15 heads per hour. “On our best days, we can probably do somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 to 700 per day.”

On the stations set up throughout the extraction space, samplers pull out the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are where much of the infectious protein concentrates in infected animals. “The lymph nodes that we’re looking for sit on each side of the throat. Each one of those lymph nodes is pulled out, we cut them in half,” explained Wallenfang. Then the samples are put into two bags each with a barcode number.

“So that is what connects this deer to the hunter that killed it, and then one of these copies we save here in our archive, and then the other copy goes to the lab in Madison - Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostics Lab — and they actually do the testing. And then we get the results back and we send those out to the hunters who come here, said Wallenfang.” Hunters can receive their results in just two days, at most two weeks.

If a deer does test positive, the DNR will the hunter a replacement authorization for the same type of deer and land type. That’s added to the hunter’s account two days after the result and it can be used for the remainder of the season or the next season.

Inside the center is a large cooler. It houses a copy of every deer tested in 2023 but also samples from the very first year that deer were tested for CWD in Wisconsin since 1999.

In between each extraction, the staff will clean and sanitize their station. The instruments used are soaked in bleach, and the table is then rinsed off with bleach. Bleach is used to neutralize the activity of any kind of prions. Wallenfang suggested if any hunters decide to pull their own lymph nodes they should use a 50/50 water bleach mixture to soak their instruments for about 10 minutes. Then rinse with water so the bleach doesn’t ruin the knives.

“It gives you peace of mind that you are feeding good healthy Wisconsin corn, corn raised acorn raised here to your family without any kind of a concern that there’s a disease that you know, no human has ever gotten it, but there is a potential that someday somebody could get it. So we’re providing that test as if nothing else peace of mind to the Hunter,” said Wallenfang.

If you’re looking for information on how to get your deer tested, the DNR has an interactive map and webpage that includes. Click here to learn more.

  • How to find a CWD sampling location near you.
  • How to have your deer sampled for CWD testing.
  • How to use the online CWD form when submitting your sample.
  • How to submit a sample using a self-service kiosk.
  • Answers to frequently asked questions, including what to do for a shoulder-mount deer and when to expect your test results.

For a list of positive locations in Wisconsin click here.

WIS. CWD affected counties
WIS. CWD affected counties(Kassandra Sepeda | Wis. DNR)