CWD Confirmed in Wild Michigan Deer

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

The nightmare has come home.

Earlier today, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources issued a release confirming the presence of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in a wild, free-ranging deer in southern Michigan. The infected whitetail (a pregnant doe) was reported by a Meridian Township resident in April, after it was observed behaving strangely in the homeowner's yard.

The deer was euthanized by animal control officers and tested for CWD. The results were positive.

“This is the first case of chronic wasting disease to be confirmed in a free-ranging, Michigan white-tailed deer,” said DNR Director Keith Creagh. 

“While it is a disappointing day for Michigan, the good news is that we are armed with a thoughtfully crafted response plan,” Creagh said. “We are working with other wildlife experts at the local, regional, state, and federal level, using every available resource, to determine the extent of this disease, to respond appropriately to limit further transmission, and ultimately to eradicate the disease in Michigan, if possible.” 

I will admit that part of me expected this day to come. CWD was previously confirmed in Michigan's neighboring states of Wisconsin and Illinois. A few years back, CWD was discovered in a captive whitetail in southwest Michigan. I knew this was a possibility... if not an inevitability.

But I wasn't expecting the disease to be discovered so close to home or that the confirmation would be from testing a wild deer. And, yes, I guess I was naively hoping Michigan would be spared.

It wasn't.

It's no secret that most cases of CWD are somehow directly tied to the presence of a high-fence deer facility in the vicinity. It's far too early to tell whether that is the case here, but Michigan has no shortage of registered (and likely some unregistered) captive deer farms, including several in the area the diseased deer was discovered. 

CWD is an always-fatal neurological disease. It is highly contagious to other whitetails, but there is no credible evidence to suggest that it can be passed to humans or to livestock. 

In neighboring Wisconsin, the discovery of CWD in 2002 led to a CWD-eradication plan that aimed to eliminate as many whitetails as possible in the impacted area. By completely ridding the area of deer, the hope was that the disease could be contained.

To say the effort was a failure is an understatement. Hunter pushback was high. Results were marginal. Today, Wisconsin's CWD infection rate is at all-time highs in some areas. Hunter satisfaction, meanwhile, is at all-time lows.

CWD can not be cured, nor does it seem possible that it can be contained. Once discovered in an area, researchers have found no way to eliminate it. The disease is caused by a protein called a prion. These prions can "live" in the soil of an area and, once established, there seems to be no way of eliminating them. Ever. Researchers have tried all manner of methods, ranging from radiation treatment to intense temperature to chemicals. The prions remain, meaning even if all deer in the area are killed, any deer returned to the area would likely contract the disease again.

To combat the latest outbeak of CWD, Michigan has implemented the following:

  • Established a Core CWD Area consisting of Alaiedon, Delhi, Lansing, Meridian, Wheatfield, and Williamstown townships in Ingham County; Bath and DeWitt townships in Clinton County; and Woodhull Township in Shiawassee County.
  • In this core area, unlimited antlerless permits will be available and mandatory deer check will be in place.
  • Restrictions will apply to the movement of carcasses and parts of deer taken in this area.
  • Created a CWD Management Zone that includes Clinton, Ingham, and Shiawassee counties.
  • A baiting and feeding ban is in place for both the Core CWD Area and the CWD Management Zone.
  • Prohibited the possession or salvage of deer killed by cars within the Core CWD Area, and residents are asked to report any road-killed deer to the DNR so that they can be tested for CWD.

It's also likely that additional deer seasons will be added in both the CWD Core Area as well as the CWD Management Zone, including the early antlerless season in an effort to reduce deer numbers in the area.

A few months back, I contributed to a piece in Outdoor Life Magazine about the future of deer hunting. Disease, particularly CWD, played a prominent role in that. In a conversation with Dr. Grant Woods, he cited CWD as perhaps the greatest threat to deer and deer hunting.

“CWD is the disease that I have nightmares about,” Woods said. “In areas with CWD, no one can predict what will happen because we do not know. Once it’s there, it’s likely there forever. It seems like hunters in areas with CWD have learned to live with it. But we need to get it back on the front page. We are talking about a national treasure when talking about our whitetail population. And CWD is a very real risk to that treasure.”

It's important to note that, thus far, the DNR has confirmed only this single case of CWD in free-ranging Michigan deer. There will be plenty more deer tested in the coming weeks as road-killed deer in the area are collected. The results of that testing will tell plenty about the future of deer hunting in southern Michigan.

Michigan is home to nearly one million deer hunters. With a hunting history that spans more than a century, and license sales consistently in the top five in the nation, it's safe to say that Michigan is arguably the most deer-crazed state in the nation.

I live there. I hunt there. And CWD was just discovered in a free-ranging, wild deer less than 40 miles from where I hunt.

Whether I knew this day was coming or not, it's here now. And all I can do is what thousands of Michigan hunters are now doing:

Waiting and hoping.