When the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) posted a video recently on Facebook showing deer hunters how to collect neck lymph node samples for private chronic wasting disease (CWD) testing, it went viral.

“We posted the video on our division Facebook page and I think it got something like 600 shares, which is pretty remarkable,” said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager. “There’s been interest from some hunters to take their own CWD samples outside our CWD-surveillance areas, so we made a video to explain how to do it. The question for us was how to get the word out, and it turns out social media was the right medium.”

On opening weekend, all deer hunters from 21 permit areas in parts of north-central, central and southern Minnesota are required to bring their deer to sampling stations where DNR officials will remove neck lymph nodes for CWD testing. The mandatory testing is a response to the reappearance of CWD — a deadly central nervous system disease affecting deer and elk — in Minnesota last fall. The DNR also recognizes hunters outside CWD-permit areas (and after opening weekend) may want to test their own deer.

But is it practical for hunters to be their own field surgeons and extract the lymph nodes using the video as a guide?

“I think it is — it’s easy to do and most deer hunters are pretty good with knives,” Cornicelli said. “I don’t know how many will opt to do it, but any private testing will supplement what we’re already doing.”

The video, which runs less than three minutes and is embedded on the CWD pages of the agency’s website (dnr.state.mn.us), is easy to follow and shows Cornicelli using a hunting knife and Leatherman multi-tool to extract a lymph node from a deer’s neck. “It’s actually best done when the animal is fresh, because you’ll able to see the lymph node much better,” Cornicelli said.

Cornicelli recommends the lymph nodes be submitted for testing at either the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab (for a fee of $45) or Colorado State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab ($17). Test results could take up to two weeks. The DNR, Cornicelli said, will dispose of any CWD-positive deer.

“We’re always immediately notified if any deer test positive and hunters can opt for us to pick up their deer and we’ll take care of it,” he said.

The idea of hunters conducting private CWD testing came to the forefront earlier this year when Canada’s leading pathologist on mad cow disease announced the preliminary results of a study that has implications for human exposure to CWD. By feeding small amounts of diseased venison to macaque monkeys over a period of years, Dr. Stefanie Czub found CWD can be transmitted to non-human primates who are genetically similar to humans. As a result, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that hunters who kill deer and elk in CWD-infested areas have the animals tested before eating the meat.

“The research definitely got our attention, but we’re still treating CWD as a cervid [deer family] disease, at least until the research is completed,” Cornicelli said.

Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) in Grand Rapids, said his group is “supportive” of non-mandatory private CWD testing and said the DNR was wise to produce a how-to sampling video for hunters.

“In general, I’m supportive of the DNR’s aggressive approach to CWD, and if individual hunters outside the surveillance areas want to test their deer, they should have the opportunity,” he said. “Now they have a video that demonstrates how to do it.”

Engwall said MDHA is committed to working with the DNR, the University of Minnesota and others “to explore the feasibility of widely expanding the availability of quick, relatively inexpensive CWD testing for harvested deer.”

“If hunters are less likely to hunt deer due to human health concerns over CWD, a readily available CWD test may remove those concerns,” he said.

Asked if $45 for testing could be cost-prohibitive for some hunters, Engwall said it’s possible. “In the main, however, if you really want to get your deer tested, I think most will be willing to pay for it,” he said, adding that more demand for testing could eventually lower the price.

Scott Doheny of New Prague has hunted deer on public land in the Grand Rapids area for the past 17 years. Reached shortly before heading north to deer camp, Doheny said he and his hunting party are going to talk about private CWD testing.

“We hunt in a zone that doesn’t require mandatory testing, but we border one that does,” he said. “In light on the new research out of Canada, private testing is definitely something we have to think about. CWD just isn’t a Wisconsin problem anymore.”

Doheny said his group butchers its own deer shortly after breaking deer camp and has some of it professionally processed into summer sausage and meat sticks.

“For us, money isn’t the issue,” said Doheny of private testing. “I just wonder how long the test is going to take and what we’ll do with the scrap meat until we get the results. That something we’ll have to find out if we decide to test.”


Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.