Chronic Wasting Disease Update

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Wisconsin DNR Technicians
Wisconsin DNR technicians prepare to check the age of a doe shot in the state’s CWD zone. After determining the deer’s age, they sever the head to determine if the deer was infected with CWD..

Nearly 10 years have passed since Wisconsin became the first state east of the Mississippi River to find chronic wasting disease (CWD) in its whitetail deer herd. Ironically, the state’s deer management response to CWD’s shocking appearance in February 2002 was most bold when science knew the least about the disease, and grew increasingly hesitant as the knowledge gap narrowed.

Within days of verifying CWD in three deer shot in November 2001 by deer hunters west of Madison, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources decided the best way to eradicate the disease was to eradicate the region’s whitetails. It also banned deer baiting and feeding statewide, practices that were nearly nonexistent before the mid-1980s, but became widespread by the mid-1990s.

The Wisconsin DNR’s leaders didn’t make those decisions in a vacuum. In the hours after confirming CWD, the agency flew its top biologists to Colorado and Wyoming to consult biologists and veterinarians who had studied the disease more than 20 years. The agency’s actions also received widespread support from biologists and wildlife-disease experts working for universities, state agencies and national hunting organizations across North America.

Thus fortified, the Wisconsin DNR stormed the herd-eradication hill, convinced the hunting public would rally to its cause. The agency then got cut to pieces like Pickett at Gettysburg. Angry landowners -- many of whom bought their scenic, fertile woodlands and retired farms for deer hunting -- refused the call to service. Some even formed an awkward alliance with anti-hunters to oppose the plan.

Worse, because CWD shares a family tree with mad-cow disease, dread swept Wisconsin and much of whitetail country. Housewives suddenly feared that deer venison roasts and deer sausage would turn their children’s brains to sponge-cake. Reinforcing those fears were TV and newspaper images showing agency “experts” in biological-hazard suits severing deer heads for test-samples, and dumping headless carcasses into dumpsters as if they were toxic waste.

As a result, in autumn 2002, Wisconsin’s deer-license sales plunged 10 percent for gun-hunting and 13 percent for bowhunting. Gun-license sales fell to 618,945, down nearly 70,000 from 688,945 in 2001; and bow-license sales fell to 227,124, down 33,115 from 260,239. The deer harvest also plunged, dropping 16.3 percent from 444,384 in 2001 to 372,021 in 2002, a decline of 72,363 deer.

Those declines caused Tom Heberlein, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to say: “If someone from PETA had asked me in 2001 to create a plan to cut deer-license sales by 10 percent and reduce the deer kill by 16 percent in one year, I would have said it’s impossible.”

Deer Farm
Wisconsin is home to more than 600 deer farms, but CWD’s presence in Wisconsin’s wild deer herds has never been directly linked to privately owned deer.

Struggling to Recover

Bow-license sales rebounded to pre-CWD numbers within two years, but gun-license sales never recovered. Firearms deer licenses reached 645,000 by 2003, but never again hit the 650,000 mark after surpassing that milestone 18 straight seasons from 1984 through 2001.

Perhaps the only thing slower to recover has been the Wisconsin DNR’s credibility, which was never high with many deer hunters anyway. That’s not a problem unique to the agency, of course. Even Aldo Leopold, the state’s iconic wildlife professor at UW-Madison and author of “A Sand County Almanac,” endured widespread scorn and death threats in the 1940s after calling on hunters to shoot antlerless deer in the state’s Northern forests to reduce browsing and improve survival rates during harsh winters.

 

 Dr. Gary Alt, who retired in December 2004 after directing Pennsylvania’s deer management program since 1999, said Wisconsin was simply unfortunate to be the first Eastern state to confront CWD on a large-scale. Although researchers have learned much in recent years, no one in North America claims to have a cure-all program for managing CWD in free-ranging deer. Every state with CWD quickly finds itself in a real-time experiment dealing with habitats, herd densities and public attitudes unique to their scene.

“Most of Wisconsin’s deer problems are happening everywhere there’s whitetails, but biologists across America are thankful they aren’t working here,” Gary said when visiting Wisconsin’s CWD zone in 2005. “We aren’t the ones in the hot seat. But to take a program where it needs to go, agencies make hundreds of decisions that affect everyone. Some decisions must be made without much information, and no matter what you decide someone will be unhappy. That’s reality.”

Fair or not, Wisconsin has struggled to manage deer in its 8,849-square-mile CWD zone. In 2003, the Wisconsin Legislature overturned the DNR’s bait-and-feed ban, and passed a law to allow deer hunters to spread 2 gallons of fruit, grains or vegetables for deer in counties where CWD has not been found. The agency also retreated from its eradication goal, first setting a new goal of 5 deer per square mile of range in the CWD zone, but recently agreeing on 20. In addition, it scaled back its lengthy CWD firearms seasons, which at one point ran from mid-October through late January. And in 2005, it agreed to suspend its earn-a-buck (EAB) rules for two years after agreeing to a compromise with hunting groups, who promised the good-will gesture would inspire deer hunters to increase the antlerless harvest.

Self-Critique

Many such decisions by DNR administrators in Madison, the state capital, rankled field staff. Even though the field biologists live and work in the CWD zone, and bear the brunt of outrage from residents, they opposed most compromises for fear the hastening CWD’s spread.

Don Bates, the DNR’s CWD operations supervisor in Dodgeville, bristles when critics say the DNR’s aggressive harvest program had no impact on the deer herd’s size. “Herd densities would be approaching 20 deer-per-square-mile goal by now if we hadn’t lost earn-a-buck in 2005 and 2006,” Bates said. “We made significant progress between 2002 and 2004, but when people noticed the herd going down, they forced us to back off. That’s why we were again averaging 45 to 50 deer per square mile of range heading into fall (in 2009). That’s also why some areas in winter again have densities of 54, 78, 84 and 128 deer per square mile.”

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