Chronic wasting disease is running rampant in Wisconsin. On the author's family ground, 55% of the bucks taken in recent years have tested positive
I caught movement to my right as the buck walked around the side of the hill below a rock outcropping, nose to the ground and on a mission for the first hot doe. I slowly stood and came to full draw as he disappeared briefly behind a large red oak tree. I grunted to stop him, and my arrow found its mark. It was a gloriously cold late-October morning in southern Wisconsin; the type Midwestern bowhunters anticipate all season. After the hero shots and high-fives ended, we needed to make the drive and get the 4.5-year-old 8-pointer tested for chronic wasting disease.
I was running short on time that weekend, so I dropped my buck off at the butcher shop after the lymph nodes had been removed for testing at a local gas station. After an agonizing wait of just more than a week, the dreaded email found my inbox. This message is to inform you the buck you harvested on October 30th has tested positive for CWD. I was angry. I immediately called the butcher to let them know they can toss the meat, knowing I just threw $100 out the window.
My 2021 archery buck (4.5 years old) and firearm buck (3.5 years old) tested positive for CWD. So did my archery bucks in 2020 (2.5 years old) and 2019 (3.5 years old). We began testing for CWD five years ago, and by the end of the 2021 season, six of the 11 bucks taken on our property had tested positive. My family has owned this property for more than three decades. We've never used bait or put out a mineral lick. Yet like much of southern Wisconsin, we have a huge CWD problem.
When you shoot a deer in CWD country, you can butcher it yourself or pay a processor, knowing you might be wasting your time and money for nothing. Current science supports the notion that CWD will not spread to humans, although monkeys fed infectious meat contracted the disease, which is concerning. Eating meat from a CWD-positive deer is not recommended. A third option is to keep the carcass chilled in a walk-in cooler or quarter the deer and store the meat until you receive your CWD test results. Not many hunters have access to a walk-in cooler or portable coolers large enough to house the meat for seven to 10 days.
Yet questions remain about management in CWD hot zones. Why are areas in the CWD epicenters still producing top-end trophy whitetails, and when do deer population levels start to be affected? What does management of them look like in the future? I called on the experts for some answers.
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Controlling the Controllable
CWD was discovered in the 1960s at a Colorado research facility and then found in a free-range herd in the early 1980s in Colorado. It is here to stay. There is no magic formula for slowing its spread, so state agencies, researchers and biologists are banding together to learn more about the disease.
Throughout southern Wisconsin, many landowners have decided to begin vigorous testing on the lands they hunt. When a deer contracts CWD, there is an 18- to 24-month incubation period during which the disease spreads throughout the nervous system. Only after that period will a deer show symptoms of being infected. Deer are social animals that breed, groom and feed with each other. You would be hard-pressed to create a disease more difficult to stop than CWD. How do you control a disease that is essentially invisible until it has incubated in a deer's body for about 18 months?
Surveillance of the disease is critical in understanding how it spreads into new areas. Increasing surveillance allows agencies to effectively track and test harvested deer for infection. I will gladly do my part and have my deer tested, and I've encouraged many hunters in our area to do the same.
However, effective surveillance is labor intensive and costs money that states often do not have. Dan Skinner, with the Illinois DNR, said, Illinois conducts mandatory check stations in designated surveillance counties during the opening two days of the first firearm season. It's resource intensive; it's an all-hands-on-deck operation. We're paying department people overtime, paying for lodging and travel. We are trying to get a feel for where CWD is. We use that information from previous years to determine our next step.
On my family's property, we enjoy taking bucks that are at least 3.5 years or older in most cases. Unfortunately, this gives bucks plenty of time to spread infectious prions on the landscape via food plots, licking branches and other natural avenues. In most CWD zones, things such as baiting and minerals are banned.
Management of CWD is extremely complex, partly because there is hardly a strategy that has overwhelming public support. Baiting bans, fines for moving deer, increased buck harvest and handing out more antlerless tags receive a level of backlash. Grant Woods, host of Growingdeer.TV, said there are a few critical issues to focus on first.
States need to stop allowing the distribution of deer, period, he said. We need to stop moving deer for commercial purposes, and hunters need to stop moving deer and deer parts. I have no issue going on record saying that the transporting of deer (dead or alive) is a larger issue than mineral sites or bait piles.
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I have no issue going on record saying that the transporting of deer (dead or alive) is a larger issue than mineral sites or bait piles.
Jason Sumners, the newly appointed deputy director of resource management at the Missouri Department of Conservation, agreed.
"One small action by a deer breeder or captive farm can have massive CWD implications for free-ranging deer, he said.
Hunters need to keep in mind the best practices for disposing of deer carcasses. My family used to have an area we called the bone pile on our property. This was a set-aside location where we would dump the carcass and other deer parts after cleaning and processing the meat. With CWD running wild, the bone pile is no more. Southern Wisconsin is now dotted with designated CWD dumpsters for hunters to discard deer bones, heads and carcasses post-kill.
Speaking of Wisconsin, where the fight about CWD management raged after discovery of the disease in 2001, managers have learned a few things. Tami Ryan with the Wisconsin DNR said, Trying to reduce prevalence of the disease is critical, but there is no magic formula. Some form of adult buck harvest strategy followed by adult doe harvest should take place due to their higher prevalence rates in comparison to yearling bucks and young does.
Shooting more deer will theoretically slow the spread and is a way for hunters like me to deal with high CWD prevalence rates. Before we can convince landowners to pull triggers and release arrows, though, leaders in the CWD research field believe proper communication is critical. Because the effects of CWD happen gradually, many underestimate the threat of the disease. Conveying accurate facts surrounding CWD will result in higher testing rates and therefore provide more understanding of how and where the disease is spreading.
Woods said, Landowners need to get educated on the facts of CWD instead of reading the latest social media post regarding CWD. We need research, not emotional reactions. CWD is a latent disease. Take this, for example: Smoking cigarettes has been proven to be harmful to human health, but the effects of smoking typically do not show themselves within the first five, 10 or even 15 years of smoking. Chronic wasting disease in whitetails is no different. It takes a while for the disease to manifest itself, much like smoking in humans.
The slow, methodical progression of the disease allows for the introduction of a lot misinformation," he said.
Still, hands-on management of the disease presents challenges. Shooting more bucks is at odds with the goals of many hunters who committed to only harvesting mature animals. Yet the longer a deer is on the landscape, the greater chance it has of contracting and shedding infectious prions until the moment it dies. That's especially true for bucks, which expand their range during fall. (As an interesting aside, on my family's land in Wisconsin, we have yet to kill a doe that has tested positive, despite the fact I shot 5.5- and 6.5-year-old does during the 2021 season.)
Does this mean my family and I, or you, should be required or encouraged to kill every deer we see? No, but hunting in a CWD area requires attentiveness. If you locate a sick deer outside of the deer season, it's important to call your local DNR or notify a game warden right away. And in a hot zone, you probably should be shooting more animals and paying particular attention to individual animals.
I typically run around 15 to 20 CuddeLink cameras on my property, which gives me near real-time information on deer movement and helps me spot anything that seems off. If we see a deer that appears in one spot again and again at odd times of day or find a deer that appears outwardly sick, we're going to hunt that deer and not pass on an opportunity to kill it.
Case in point: In 2020 I had a deer I called Thirsty show up a rubber waterhole at all times of day, showing no caution. He was about a 115-inch 3.5-year-old buck. The neighbor killed him during gun season, and sure enough, he tested positive. We removed the rubber waterhole later that fall.
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The Long Game
There is still no cure for CWD, and unfortunately, the short-term outlook isn't positive. Yet CWD won't seriously affect herd numbers until a sufficiently high percentage of deer contract it, and that just hasn't happened yet in most places. Each summer, I get excellent trail camera photos of outwardly healthy whitetails meandering through the hills and valleys of our farm, masking the CWD issues at hand. We still have high deer densities and mostly healthy looking whitetails, with no signs of a population decline.
I asked Sumners when we might see whitetail populations decline in southern Wisconsin.
In areas like that, with such a large population of deer, the proportion of the population that will have to die from CWD for the average hunter to see a visible decline would have to be significant," he said. "It's a numbers game, and we haven't gotten to the point of the disease where population decline is occurring.
Still, knowing what we know, we're torn about how to properly manage our land. In the short-term, my family plans to harvest plenty of does each season and fill our buck tags if we can. I don't plan to kill a slew of 1.5-year-old bucks because I am looking for a bigger challenge, but with CWD tied to our landscape for the foreseeable future, it will be hard to pass on anything of age knowing there's a 50-50 chance the buck already has CWD. The disease has established itself, and it's largely up to cooperating private landowners to listen to the experts such as the ones mentioned here and do their part.
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