Is CWD Continuing to Spread?

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Deer Hunting in a CWD Zone
Deer hunting continues to be popular in southern Wisconsin’s CWD zone, but disease prevalence continues to climb.

Further, given that little was known about CWD when it was found in Wisconsin, many people formed their own beliefs in a vacuum left by this scientific uncertainty. Lacking solid information, the intense media coverage of CWD in the year following its discovery highlighted doubts and unanswered questions.

A study by Tom Heberlein of UW-Madison and Richard Stedman of Cornell University illustrates the extensive and intensive nature of CWD coverage. They reported that the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times ran 746 CWD stories in 2002, beginning on March 1 (more than two stories daily during the last 10 months of the year). The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran nearly 400 CWD stories, more than one daily. Gannett Newspapers in northeastern Wisconsin ran more than 500 CWD stories, of which 149 were on the front page (one every third day). And Gannett Newspapers in central Wisconsin ran more than one story daily after the discovery of CWD. Before CWD’s discovery, these prominent newspapers ran virtually no stories on the disease.

Heberlein and Stedman wrote: “The media reinterpreted ‘normal’ scientific and managerial uncertainty as problematic. … Media coverage highlighted scientific uncertainty and used dramatic imagery to emphasize and foster strong (emotional) reactions among viewers, rather than prompt a more cognitive response.”

Therefore, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that many Wisconsin deer hunters now believe CWD has “always been here,” even though research continually refutes the belief. And even though widespread testing across the eastern U.S. has only detected CWD in Maryland, Minnesota, West Virginia and New York, many Wisconsin hunters believe “they just haven’t looked hard enough.” Hunters also tend to believe that risks associated in deer congregating at bait piles is overblown, even though recent studies found CWD prions in deer saliva and feces.

Perhaps part of the problem is most deer hunters no longer fear CWD because there remains no evidence it poses human health risks. In fact, Lopez reported that from 2005 to 2008, 52 percent of hunters who shot a CWD-positive deer and kept its venison for themselves either ate some or all of it before receiving lab results. Either that or they had not eaten any of the venison but still planned to do so after learning the deer tested positive.

Ultimately, though, the Wisconsin DNR continues to shoulder much responsibility for not communicating science’s progressively stronger case for CWD’s persistence and lethality. Why hasn’t the agency “reloaded” and tried once more to rouse legislators and the hunting public from complacency?

The Wisconsin Chapter of the Wildlife Society, which includes scores of retired and active DNR biologists, submitted this opinion in its critique of the agency’s CWD plan in 2009: “The DNR has lots of people who know how to manipulate wildlife populations, but relatively few who know how to inform and manage public opinion. … (The DNR) seeks to be responsive but is loath to assert its own values. CWD is one issue where public understanding is so poor and conflicted that the DNR should be actively trying to change it.”

Meanwhile, deer hunters in southwestern Wisconsin continue to see and shoot impressive bucks, even as they cross swords with DNR administrators and field staff. Don Bates, the DNR’s CWD operations supervisor in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, said big bucks are almost common at DNR registration stations, especially when earn-a-buck regulations are in place.

“Southwestern Wisconsin is a Mecca for trophy bucks,” Bates said. “A lot of bucks now make it to age 3, and we see more than a few 4- and 5-year-olds. Whitetails remain a phenomenal resource around here. I’m almost accustomed to seeing hunters with monster bucks.”

He attributes those bucks to EAB, which spares many young bucks from harvest, and says the regulations mesh with Quality Deer Management strategies. He concedes, however, hunters often resist a regulation imposed by the state.

“Many of them would pass up bucks and shoot antlerless deer voluntarily, but they don’t like being forced to do it,” Bates said. “I have to say, though, that we still have too many guys who practice ‘quantity deer management,’ not quality deer management. Their club’s leaders understand what needs to be done, but there’s some disconnect between leaders and members. Some of these guys grasp at straws to justify not shooting more does. One of them even claims our native oak trees are inferior acorn producers, and wants us to import oaks from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”

Keith Warnke, Wisconsin’s former chief deer ecologist, shares Bates’ concerns, but says serious deer hunters are often willing to help. “Many of them lead by example on the antlerless deer harvest,” Warnke said. “The guys who buy into quality deer management tend to shoot more antlerless deer than other hunters. We hope to convince them to do even more in the future.”

Perhaps one way to do that is to educate and encourage hunters to spare buck fawns and focus on adult does. Wildlife biologist Kip Adams, the Quality Deer Management Association’s director of education and outreach in the North, wrote recently that most hunters won’t shoot more than three deer annually. Therefore, given that buck-fawns kills do little to reduce deer herds, it’s imperative for deer hunters to focus on adult does to reach deer management objectives.

Wisconsin research found the buck-fawn harvest makes up 22.5 percent of the state’s antlerless harvest, whereas Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana report average percentages of 26.7, 19.7 and 24.8, respectively. Adams writes that the QDMA recommends buck fawns constitute less than 10 percent of the antlerless harvest, and suggests education can help achieve that goal.

Warnke likes the idea, but cautions hunt clubs not to penalize members for shooting buck fawns. “If they worry about ridicule or fines, their members will be reluctant to shoot antlerless deer,” Warnke said. “It’s a good approach, though, and worth exploring.”

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