WE WERE hoping it would be years before a wild deer in Vilas County tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), the fatal, infectious nervous system disease that’s been slowly spreading toward northern Wisconsin the past 20 years.

But that bad news hit last month when a deer harvested in the city of Eagle River during an antlerless archery season tested positive for the prion disease, which can be found in deer, moose, elk and caribou.

While Vilas became just the fourth county in the 18-county northern region where CWD was detected in a wild deer, more counties were added to the list this month when the disease was confirmed in wild deer shot in Oconto and Monroe counties.

According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Oconto County case involved a one-year-old buck taken in the town of Underhill during the nine-day gun deer season. In Monroe County, two adult bucks harvested in the towns of Ridgeville and Glendale tested positive.

Add those to the five wild deer that tested positive in the Harrison Hills area near the Oneida/Lincoln county line west of Rhinelander since 2017 and there’s little doubt that the disease is spreading, however slowly, in the wild herd here.

The big concern here for venison-loving hunters is the increasing possibility of harvesting a diseased deer, and whether that remote possibility is worth changing the protocol on how we process deer for consumption.

As a precaution, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) recommends the public only consume venison from deer in which CWD is not detected. In areas where CWD is known to be present, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that hunters strongly consider having those animals tested before eating the meat.

It’s an extra step in the name of safety but it’s not all that complicated to butcher a deer, mark the packages and then refrain from consuming that meat until a negative CWD test results comes back from the state.

Besides having their own deer tested, the DNR says hunters who have their deer commercially processed should consider asking whether the processor mixes meat from untested animals into the products it returns to the customer. Products such as sausage and jerky may contain trim meat from other people’s deer, which may or may not have been tested for CWD.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, processors may choose to process all deer with “CWD not detected” lab results together to avoid the possibility that trim meat from non-tested deer will end up being carried over in products returned to customers.

To be clear, there has never been a documented case of CWD infection in humans or any modern-day proof that the abnormal protein that causes the disease, called a prion, can infect anything other than deer and elk. In fact, there has been no evidence of human infections years after eating diseased venison.

However, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease is a human prion disease that has occurred following consumption of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the prion responsible for mad cow disease. So a very small minority of experts have warned that as consumption of infected venison increases, the chances of transmission of CWD to humans might also increase. The risk is basically unknown.

As the DNR encourages hunters to have their deer tested, it makes clear the fact that prions are not destroyed even when cooking meat to safe temperatures.

But it should also be pointed out that when hunters get their results back from a CWD test, state officials make no guarantees that the meat is safe for consumption despite a negative result. That inconclusive posturing might also weigh on the minds of hunters, impacting whether testing is worth the hassle at all.

To test or not test your deer, that is the question moving forward. And if so, when to start that new protocol where you butcher, package and then wait several weeks for a clean bill of health on CWD.

Hunters have several options to have their deer sampled for CWD. In addition to a network of around-the-clock self-service sampling kiosks around the state, some meat processors and taxidermists offer in-person sample assistance.

Those interested in collecting their own CWD sample can request an at-home sampling kit from their local DNR wildlife management staff and return their sample to the DNR for testing at no charge. There’s an online CWD form found in each customer’s Go Wild harvest history that makes it convenient.

Personally, the lack of evidence on human infection has the scribbler feeling good about the venison he consumes on a weekly basis, in one form or another. But I’ve got grandkids and other family members to think about, so testing the venison might help others to confidently continue the family tradition of eating venison and smoked products such as sausage, hotdogs, jerky, bacon and other tasty goodies.

It might be worth finding a meat processor that will smoke “CWD not detected” venison separately so I don’t have to think about where the other trimmed meat came from, including some private game farm that could have a higher rate of infection in their herd. Currently, I don’t control that part of the processing.

It’s sad but true that recent infections in the wild deer herd are forcing us to think about taking these precautions, especially if you hunt within 10 miles of the location of a positive CWD case.

Most importantly, it’s not going to kill the legacy of deer hunting and eating venison. For every problem, there’s a solution.