What CWD Might Mean For Michigan Hunters

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

Advice From One Neighbor To Another

EDITOR'S NOTE:

A few days ago, my deer hunting world was turned upside down with the discovery of chronic wasting disease in a wild Michigan whitetail. That positive test occurred just 35 miles from where I hunt and live.

In the following days there has been plenty of conversation, worry and wondering. Brian Lovett, author the Realtree Outdoor News blog, lives in Wisconsin and hunts deer in a CWD state.

I asked him to share his experiences in dealing with CWD and what it's meant to him as a deer hunter. His guest blog follows.

-- Tony Hansen

Hey Michigan: Just heard the tough news that wildlife officials discovered chronic wasting disease in a wild deer there. Let me offer my sympathies and a bit of free advice.

First, some background. I’m a native cheesehead and have worked in the hunting/shooting media industry since the early 1990s, so I had a front-row seat in 2002 when Wisconsin discovered CWD in wild deer from the southwestern part of the state. Most hunters knew nothing about the disease, but we soon learned that it’s an always-fatal transmissible spongiform encephalopathy in cervids. And then we learned that deer hunting — which might only take a back seat in Wisconsin to God, beer and the Packers — would never be the same.

Officials explained that although scientists aren’t absolutely sure how CWD spreads, prions — the mutant protein that causes the disease — are shed in the saliva, urine, feces and nasal droppings of deer and can remain infectious in the soil for years. Therefore, the area and percentage of deer affected would increase. In response, our Department of Natural Resources embarked on an ambitious monitoring program and herd-reduction effort in the affected area.

Despite holding the disease prevalence at low levels, the latter proved unpopular with hunters, as it involved extended seasons, off-season shooting permits, government agency sharpshooters and other deer-removal incentives. In 2010, the DNR’s Wisconsin’s Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan: 2010-2025 concluded, “Surveys have shown that while hunters acknowledge the potential for long-term negative impacts from CWD, they are largely unconvinced that the risks to the deer resource are immediate enough to warrant substantially altering their hunting behavior.”

That philosophy seems to have spread. Nowadays, apathy reigns when it comes to CWD, even though the disease has increased in scope and prevalence. A recent article by Bill Lueders on wisconsinwatch.org said Wisconsin tested an average of more than 25,000 deer per year for CWD from 2002 to 2006. That was cut to just more than 8,000 deer per year from 2007 to 2012, in large part because of legislative budget cuts. 

“Meanwhile, the incidence of CWD-infected deer has risen steadily from .5 percent in 2002 to 5 percent in 2012 — a tenfold increase in 10 years,” he wrote. In fact, he added, the annual growth rate for CWD in a southwestern Wisconsin hotspot has reached 27 percent among deer 2.5 years or older. 

Further, lawmakers — including Gov. Scott Walker — have gutted CWD eradication measures, which, Lueders and the DNR report point out, decrease herd size. Meanwhile, Illinois has continued to pressure its deer herd in the infected area of the state by using sharpshooters, and has kept the disease prevalence from spiraling upward.

So where is the public backlash or outrage at this disturbing policy reversal? Other than persistent cries from a few journalists and scientists, it’s nonexistent. At hunting camps and sportsmen’s watering holes, it’s as if CWD had ceased to exist.

Why? Well, the DNR’s initial eradication plan was radical, cost the state millions and changed relatively little, though in the agency’s defense, nothing of that sort had ever been attempted. Meanwhile, very few Wisconsin hunters have encountered infected deer or experienced CWD’s impacts directly, so it’s become easy to dismiss the disease’s potential impact.

In fact, that’s been my CWD experience. I was concerned at first but didn’t change my hunting habits. It became a bit more real when a DNR worker sawed the head off a doe I’d shot during gun season to submit for testing. When the results came back negative, however, my thoughts of CWD faded. Nowadays, my deer hunting habits and experience haven’t changed — mostly because I’m in central Wisconsin, far from the CWD hotspots in the southwestern part of the state. I still see deer, and I still enjoy the season. A good friend in that area, however, has long proclaimed his deer hunting “ruined” because of the disease and resulting regulations. Until CWD directly affects someone’s outdoors experience, it seems, that person will continue hunting as though nothing is changing.

Still, I wonder how I or any Wisconsin resident be complacent when they hear words such as this, from Dave Clausen, a veterinarian formerly on Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board? “All indications are that under current policy, CWD will continue to spread across the state and will increase in prevalence where it is established,” he said in a letter to the DNR, as quoted in Lueders’ article.

Increased range and prevalence will probably equate to lower deer populations, as has occurred near Table Mesa, Colo. That’s not a pretty picture for Wisconsin, where hunters have been perpetually dissatisfied with deer numbers throughout the state since, oh, the 1940s, and the northern one-third of Wisconsin is already dealing with lower deer densities because of recent hard winters. Further, deer hunting is more than a cultural phenomenon here. It’s a mammoth revenue stream. In 2006, deer hunting generated about $900,000 in retail sales and about $1.4 billion in total related revenue.

If that bad news wasn’t enough, Wisconsinites face an even more terrifying prospect: the possibility, however remote, that CWD could jump the species barrier and infect humans with a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or something similar. Scientists say there is no evidence that’s possible. However, others say there’s no evidence it couldn’t happen. No one believed that bovine spongiform encephalopathy could jump from cattle to humans until 1995, when Steve Churchill, a 19-year-old British man, became the first person to die from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, better known as mad cow disease.

If CWD mutates to infect humans, deer hunting is finished.

So, what’s my advice, Michigan friends? Breathe. Don’t panic, but be afraid. Be patient and understanding, but demand answers from scientists and lawmakers. Be vigilant, and don’t forget or be lulled into a sense of security by naysayers or politicians. Listen to scientists as they recommend strategies. You still have a good chance to kill this spark and preserve Michigan’s incredible deer hunting tradition.

Above all, continue hunting and enjoying your tremendous whitetail resource. And don’t follow the example of Wisconsin lawmakers or hunters, who seem content to look the other way and hope against logic for miracles as the crown jewel of our state’s wildlife scene slides further into jeopardy.