Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a serious threat to the future of deer hunting. Yet, there are many hunters who don’t understand or appreciate the threat, who feel it is not something they have to worry about because it is far away from their woods, or who confuse it with other diseases. That’s why it’s important for all deer hunters – especially those who have not yet felt the impact of CWD or who live far from any outbreak areas – to learn what is really happening right now to those who have the misfortune of being affected.
There is much confusion between CWD and hemorrhagic disease (EHD and bluetongue virus). EHD and bluetongue are serious matters in their own right, and their impact is more rapid, more visible and more dramatic. Deer carcasses pile up quickly in outbreak areas. By contrast, CWD is a slow poison, building over time, taking months or years to kill individual deer that are spreading the infection as they slowly die (Click here to read a detailed comparison of the two diseases). Unlike the EHD and bluetongue viruses transmitted by insects, the CWD blight is steadily growing with no breaks, no recovery periods, no survivors, and no resulting immunity. The known impact sites for CWD in wild deer or elk currently include 26 states and three Canadian provinces (as of January 2021). We should be concerned about both EHD and CWD, but an important difference is that CWD can still be prevented from spreading to new areas. If you don’t hunt in or near regions with CWD, be very happy, and support all efforts to prevent the disease’s arrival near you. If it hits, the biological damage to the deer herd will be slow to build, but the impact on you and your hunting will likely be immediate and significant.
Don’t take my word for it. Just consider the actual impacts on hunters caught in the real world of a CWD outbreak.
Here are 10 very real reasons why you don’t want CWD in your woods.
1. Necessary Deer Population Reduction
State wildlife agencies are working hard to prevent CWD entering their states, but when it is discovered and prevention is no longer possible, the goal shifts to intensive surveillance and containment. Sharpshooters, agency personnel and local hunters are enlisted to shoot and sample enough wild deer to reveal the prevalence and extent of the outbreak. Once this is known, a management plan is developed, and it usually involves reducing deer density in the Disease Management Zone (DMZ) to reduce deer-to-deer contact and slow the spread. Emergency seasons may be opened, bonus tags may be doled out, and landowners may be asked to cooperate in thinning the one resource that may be the reason they own land – necessary steps that neither the agencies nor the hunters involved would choose if they didn’t have to.
Missouri discovered its first case of CWD in Macon County in 2010 in a pair of adjacent captive deer facilities owned by the same deer farmer. It was discovered in 2012 in wild deer just outside these pens. The site is in Missouri’s prime deer country. “This is the heart of some of our best deer hunting in the state,” said Jason Sumners, deer project leader for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).
MDC moved quickly, as most states do, to drop wild deer numbers in a 30 square mile core area around the two deer farms. Sharpshooters entered private lands, and bonus tags were dispensed.
“Deer density was probably in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 per square mile before we started. Now, we’re less than 10,” Jason said. “A lot of the landowners in this area bought the land specifically for deer hunting, and it’s a tough pill for them to swallow. In general they have been really, really cooperative, but they’re not happy about it at all.”
2. New Rules for Moving and Handling Venison
After you have killed a deer, you likely have a set of rituals you go through to reduce it to bag and prepare it for the dinner table. If CWD appears nearby, you can probably scrap all that and learn a new regime. It’s possible that every deer you kill will have to be taken first to a mandatory check-station for sample collection. You’ll be limited as to where you can take the carcass without first boning it out. Parts like the head may have to remain in the DMZ and other parts discarded at an approved location.
“I can’t take a deer carcass out of the zone. I can’t even take the head to a taxidermist outside the zone,” said Rick Watts of Pennsylvania, who lives in a DMZ surrounding a deer farm in Adams County where CWD was discovered in 2012, one of three DMZs in Pennsylvania. “There was only one taxidermist in the zone who did European mounts, and he quit. He didn’t want to have to deal with all the regulations and problems.”
Rick now processes his own venison because his favorite processor is located outside the zone, and hunters who use commercial processors must use one that is located within the boundaries. “I live a mile from the edge of the zone, and the two butchers that are inside the zone are on the far side. They’re further away from me than a couple of butchers that are outside the line.”
Precautions and regulations like these complicate life for hunters, and they strain the relationship between hunters and their wildlife agencies, but the agencies are also in a tough position. There are no easy methods for containing CWD once it arrives, but inaction is not an option for anyone who cares about whitetails.
“I don’t think the average hunter understands the potential impact of what this will do to their hunting,” Rick said.
3. Loss of Basic Hunting Privileges
Rick’s hunting has changed in other ways. He can no longer use supplemental feed or distribute minerals. These are common rules put in place in an effort to slow CWD’s spread anywhere it appears, and the National Deer Association (NDA) supports agencies in taking steps like these. Bait, feed and mineral sites can congregate deer unnaturally, making it easier for them to swap saliva or come in contact with the urine or feces of other deer – all of which can transmit the infectious materials that cause CWD. In Rick’s case, he can’t hunt with urine-based lures or attractants either. (Learn the specific regulations by state)
“We used to do trail-camera surveys and I put out corn and minerals to bait the camera sites, so I can’t do trail-camera surveys anymore,” Rick said. “That affects our ability to get deer in front of cameras and monitor the herd. I also used to put out minerals and a mix of attractants in front of my cameras, but I’m not allowed to do that anymore, either.”
4. Mature Bucks Not Encouraged
Research has revealed that CWD prevalence rates are highest in older bucks. For that reason, CWD containment plans often involve managing for a young deer age structure, the opposite of Quality Deer Management. Hunters are discouraged from attempting to build buck age structure by protecting yearling or middle-aged bucks – again, an unfortunate but prudent step in containing the disease.
In 2004, Missouri established an experimental 4-points-on-a-side antler restriction to protect yearling bucks in 29 northern counties. It was a success and was popular among hunters, so in 2008 the rule was expanded to 65 counties. When CWD was discovered in the middle of those 65 counties, the antler point regulation was repealed in the six-county DMZ.
Jason Sumners said the sex ratio of the deer harvest in the containment zone has shifted quickly back in favor of bucks, and pressure on yearling bucks is high once again.
Gary Bolhofner of Missouri, who hunts in the DMZ, said he hated to see the antler regulation repealed.
“The 4-point rule really helped,” he said. “We were really seeing a lot of good bucks before it was dropped.”
5. Economic Losses in the Region
When CWD is discovered in a new area, research has shown a subsequent decrease in hunting effort and time spent afield. Some hunters leave the woods because they don’t see many deer anymore, a result of intentional efforts to reduce deer density and contain the disease. Some hunters leave the woods because of fears about eating venison from an infected deer. Participation rates rebound in many areas after an initial period of alarm and confusion, which is often fueled by inaccuracies about the disease in local news media. Once the facts come into focus, many hunters return to the woods, but not all.
In Wisconsin, hunting license sales fell sharply after CWD was discovered in 2001 and have remained about 5 percent below previous levels, or about 40,000 hunters short.
The initial decline in hunting participation after a CWD outbreak is significant enough to be felt in the local economy, even if the effect is short-lived. Spending by hunters on lodging, meals, gas, equipment, deer processing, and other goods and services drops off. License sales may also decline, impacting state wildlife agency budgets at a time when new expenses associated with controlling CWD are exploding.
This is to say nothing of the value of recreational hunting land in the affected area. “I take calls from folks who want to know what’s going on, who had been thinking about buying land in the area but are goosey about the long-term impacts of CWD,” said Jason Sumners. “I can’t say there has been an impact on land value, but there’s definitely a perception of, well, ‘maybe I’ll just go buy land somewhere else.’ ”
6. Your Tax and License Money Diverted
Even in states where CWD has not yet been detected, wildlife agencies are pouring tens of thousands of dollars into monitoring to ensure early detection if it arrives. In our 2010 Whitetail Report, NDA surveyed agencies and found that states were spending a combined annual total of over $1 million just for collecting and testing samples to monitor wild deer for CWD. I checked with my home state of Georgia, which is fortunately still a long way from the nearest known case of CWD, and learned the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) currently spends around $20,000 annually on CWD surveillance. The grand total from 2003 to 2015 was nearly half a million dollars.
These costs rise dramatically after CWD enters the picture, as more intensive monitoring is needed to define the impact zone. Monitoring costs are joined by added expenses and manpower. In states with CWD, costs are running in the millions. While much of these funds used to come from the federal government, state funds also were being used. In 2012, federal funding for CWD surveillance was significantly reduced, and most costs must now be borne by the states, which already have precious little in their budgets for spending on programs that benefit sportsmen. Georgia WRD could do a lot to benefit sportsmen with the funds that are being spent on CWD surveillance, but the situation could be much worse. So far, none of those CWD samples collected in Georgia have tested positive.
7. No State Has Won The CWD Battle
After more than a decade and over $49 million dollars spent fighting CWD in Wisconsin, prevalence rates in 15 impacted counties are climbing steadily. In Iowa County, for example, the percentage of adult bucks with CWD has climbed from 33 percent in 2012 to more than 40 percent.
“Even so, many of us continue to hunt deer in this increasingly diseased region,” wrote hunter and freelance writer Patrick Durkin in a recent column for the Wisconsin State Journal. “It’s where many of us learned to hunt deer, and it remains a beautiful land with abundant wildlife. We continue to cherish it, much as we would a stricken loved one. So, yes, the deer hunting tradition remains, but how long before it, too, falls to CWD?”
I asked that same question of Dr. John Fischer, a wildlife veterinarian and Director of the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“In my opinion, it’s too early to tell,” he said. “In some areas, CWD prevalence in wild deer is approaching 50 percent. For a disease that’s uniformly fatal, I think that sooner or later you’re going to start seeing some population impacts.”
Those impacts may not include local extinctions, but they will include changes in herd structure, said Matt Dunfee, Director of the CWD Alliance. “A doe will live long enough to replace herself,” he said, “but she’s probably not going to survive to 4½ years old. Neither is a buck.”
New York has one of the few encouraging stories. In 2005, CWD was discovered at two captive deer facilities in Oneida County. Surveillance was intensified, restrictions were placed on movement of live and dead deer, and later that year two wild deer tested positive in the DMZ. Since then, despite thousands of wild deer tested statewide and particularly in the DMZ, no additional positives have been found. The containment zone was dissolved in 2010, but surveillance is ongoing. Because of potential environmental contamination with infectious CWD materials, even this might not be a victory.
“You don’t go back to ‘CWD free’,” said Dunfee, “It will affect a wildlife agency forever. Even in New York, they’re not CWD free. The long-term effect of this will be felt, as far as we know, indefinitely.”
8. Prions Die Hard
Even if Wisconsin or any other state could somehow completely remove every sick deer in DMZs, infectious materials litter the battlefield. The abnormal proteins, called “prions,” are shed by whitetails in feces, urine, saliva and blood, and they remain in carcasses. Unlike an EHD virus which cannot survive outside the body of its host, CWD-causing material can survive in soil and remain infectious for an as-yet undetermined amount of time.
“We know it can remain viable in the environment for a number of years,” said Dr. Fischer. “We don’t know how long.”
In studies with captive elk, sick animals were removed and their pens cleaned and disinfected thoroughly, including removal and replacement of the dirt in the pen. But new animals introduced to the site became infected. If wild deer die out or are eradicated from DMZs, restocking will not likely be attempted for years without risk of new outbreaks.
9. Are You Going to Eat That?
There is no evidence that CWD is transmissible to humans. According to the Centers or Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “To date, no strong evidence of CWD transmission to humans has been reported.”
Nevertheless, they urge caution because CWD is in the same group of disorders as mad cow disease, which can infect humans. The CDC suggests you be careful about how you process venison harvested in a DMZ and what parts of the deer you touch and eat.
Deer can carry CWD for months to years before symptoms become obvious. If CWD comes to your area, will you be concerned about eating venison? Or feeding it to your family? Do you want to have that on your mind when you are slicing out a pair of backstraps?
Many hunters in DMZs have concerns. Many pay out of their own pockets to have their deer tested for CWD, and they wait until results are back before they eat the venison – the CDC also suggests this precautionary step, although experts emphasize the test is a surveillance tool and not a food-safety procedure. The cost of a test may vary from $30 to $50 or more, and results are usually available in a few weeks.
It’s one more way that deer hunting has changed for these hunters and potentially one more added cost.
10. There’s Currently No Cure
Scientists are working to create a vaccine that can prevent CWD, but the work is slow. An initial trial provided tantalizing hope that a vaccine is possible. Four of five deer given an experimental vaccine still contracted and died of CWD when exposed, but the fifth deer remains CWD free – the “first partially successful vaccination for a prion disease in a species naturally at risk” according to the researchers.
Still, it’s likely to be years before a vaccine is actually developed. It will be extremely useful in cleaning captive deer herds of the disease, but its practicality for reducing or preventing CWD in wild herds will be questionable.
The bottom line, according to Dr. Fischer: Prevention is the only proven technique for managing diseases in free-ranging wildlife.
“Trying to play catch-up with a wildlife disease after it’s already established is tough,” said Dr. Fischer. “There’s no guarantee of success, but there is a guarantee it’s going to be a very costly, long-term endeavor. If you don’t have CWD where you hunt, you don’t want it.”
Based on what we know about how the disease spreads, there are two primary methods for preventing the arrival of CWD in new areas.
First, stop the transportation of live deer and elk into and within your state.
Second, stop movement of parts of deer and elk from DMZs into your state or area.
“If you are a hunter in a state without CWD, encourage your legislators and wildlife agency to put in place any regulations that can reduce the risk of it entering the state,” said Matt Dunfee. “Encourage them to spend money on sampling and monitoring to pick up the disease as quickly as you possibly can so they can jump on it when it does.”
I live and hunt in Georgia, where CWD has yet to be discovered, and I pray it never will be. For many hunters, CWD is easy to ignore or dismiss because it is still far away from their state’s borders or because the impact is complex or difficult to quantify. But I urge you to learn all you can. Visit your state wildlife agency’s website and read their CWD response plan. Contact them to learn more about their testing programs, and support them in their monitoring efforts – as well as their containment efforts should that day come. If nothing else, take one thing from this story…
You don’t want CWD in your woods.