Time to get serious about the spread of CWD

Unless checked, the spread of CWD will significantly impact whitetail hunting's future. Here are the facts.
Time to get serious about the spread of CWD

It’s long past due for hunters to get serious about the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD). Because it is a huge concern, game agencies have instituted new rules that hunters hunting in “Hot Zone” areas of CWD have to follow. Maybe hunters don’t fully understand how serious this disease is, but when lots of CWD-positive deer pop up in areas where you hunt, these new rules are inconvenient, to say the least. First, you’ve got to live with the fact that lots of deer will be shot in these areas to lower deer numbers. The truth is, it would be good to eliminate all deer in CWD areas, but obviously that isn’t possible. However, the game agency will take steps to drastically increase the kill — and for the hunter, that isn’t a good thing. However, for curbing CWD, it is good.

Then you have mandatory check in, and — depending on where you are transporting the deer — you’ll have to bone it out. If it’s a trophy that you want to mount, you can’t drive it to your taxidermist before caping it out unless the taxidermist lives in the CWD management area. If you want to get it commercially butchered, it has to be done by someone in the CWD area. If there are no butchers there who will do CWD deer, then you’ll have to do it yourself. A fair number of hunters already butcher their own deer, but this would be a new deal for others.

Forget baiting or supplemental feeding. That’s gone, too. If you do an August trail camera survey where you place feed in front of the cameras to attract the deer, that’s gone. If you hunt in Missouri, as of June 27, 2017, the CWD Management Zone has been expanded to 41 counties where you cannot put out minerals or feed. Period. In fact, in most CWD hot zones, baiting and feeding are a thing of the past.

Hunters love antler restrictions. Surveys of hunters done in states that implemented antler restrictions all show high support for these regulations. That may change, and it already has in two states. Antler restrictions are designed to allow yearling bucks to reach older ages; however, in most areas around 70 percent of those yearlings disperse in the spring or the fall. Some go as far as 12 miles and set up new residency. If a yearling has CWD, then dispersal obviously enhances the spread of CWD. This led Arkansas and Missouri, states where antler restrictions are very popular, to eliminate antler restrictions in CWD counties. Gone are the days when the sight of good bucks in antler restriction areas was common. Sad, but the simple fact is that the game agency had no choice. They want yearling bucks shot to slow the spread of this disease. I'm not sure how those states factored in the fact that by the time the yearlings are killed, they've already dispersed, but regardless, they've eliminated antler restrictions.

If you own a farm or other land in a CWD hot zone, your property value is not what it was prior to the disease. Hunting declines, hunter expenditures drop and the economics in rural areas drops in areas that decrease in jobs and income is serious.

Those are some of the rules that hunters must follow in CWD areas, and those areas are growing in number. Why do state agencies inflict all this on hunters in those areas? The answer is simple. This disease is serious, like nothing we’ve ever seen before, and the future of hunting and funding for wildlife management might well hang in the balance. I know this will upset some biologists and some readers. Crying “wolf” isn’t popular, but the more we learn about CWD, the worse the future looks.

Every year more and more hunters have to decide whether to eat the meat of deer taken in areas that have CWD. Pennsylvania hunters are starting to feel that as CWD spreads there. In fact, as I write this (mid-July) a CWD buck was found in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania where it was formerly only found on two deer farms and not in the wild. The state has already implemented some new rules for that Management Area. Hunters can purchase two of the 2,800 DMAP doe permits for that area that can be used on public or private land. The Game Commission also plans to use sharpshooters in a small, focal area where the CWD-positive deer was found, in hopes of stopping the disease before it has a chance to spread.

More and more hunters in Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin and Iowa are also having to make decisions. Do I continue to deer hunt, and if I get a deer, do I eat it? Do I share it with friends? If I’m not going to eat it or share it, why bother to hunt?

So far it appears that the prions that cause CWD cannot enter the human body by eating CWD venison. Even so, many game agencies advise hunters to not eat venison if they know it has CWD.

To make things a little scarier, a new study done in Canada using macaque monkeys has changed a lot of thinking on that subject. The study was conducted by Dr. Stefanie Czub, a scientist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and funded by the Alberta Prion Research Institute. She found that three of five monkeys fed meat from a CWD-infected deer for three years got CWD.  This led Health Canada to release a statement that said, “While extensive disease surveillance in Canada and elsewhere has not provided any direct evidence that CWD has infected humans, the potential for CWD to be transmitted to humans cannot be excluded.”

So, hunters are getting mixed messages. On one hand they are told that it’s safe to eat CWD venison because no one has ever gotten CWD. On the other hand, there is this study of a mammal that is closer to humans than other animals and it ate CWD venison and got CWD. The question is how does all this impact the perception of hunters about hunting where there is CWD. What risk do they feel? A 2017 study in Maryland where 1,524 hunters who lived varying distances from a CWD Management Area were surveyed. The greatest negative perception (22.6 percent) took place in the county containing the CWD Management Area and harvest related to CWD was down 7 percent. In the adjacent county, negative perception was 16.8 percent with no decrease in CWD related harvest. Overall, Maryland hunters weren’t overly concerned, but note that CWD has only been found in a small area of one western Maryland county (Allegany).

CWD was first discovered in northern Illinois in 2002. Since that time it spread to 13 counties, with 409 positive cases. A mail survey was conducted by researchers at the Illinois Natural History Survey to examine hunter support or opposition to a sharpshooting program. On average, hunters perceived no risk in becoming ill from CWD. The higher the hunter’s perceived risk to their health and the health of deer, the more the hunters approved of sharpshooting to reduce deer numbers. Of course the hunters wanted first crack at the deer as opposed to sharpshooters.

Results were confounded by the fact that hunters perceived seeing fewer deer in the sharpshooting areas, and thus had very low trust in the game agency to manage deer, provide information on CWD in a timely manner, and, to be truthful about human safety, how CWD spreads, and the number of CWD-positive deer. The researchers noted that even though the agency tells hunters it’s safe to eat the meat (and this is true in most states with CWD), they still advise them to not eat deer known to have CWD. My thoughts are that hunters will increase their concerns about eating deer and about hunting where there are CWD deer, as the disease spreads and increases in area where the disease occurs.

Ever since CWD first appeared in Wisconsin in 2002, state wildlife agencies have been faced with a conundrum. They felt that elimination of all CWD-positive deer in an area was the best way to go, so this meant hammering the heck out of local populations. That approach has only worked in one instance: when CWD first appeared in New York. In all other cases, even with increased harvests, either by hunters or sharpshooters, CWD continued to increase and spread while hunters living in the CWD areas saw deer numbers plummet.

However, the game agencies understood just how serious this disease was, and by hitting deer hard, they did slow the spread. Perhaps the best example of this was in northern Illinois where prevalence is relatively low because of large doe harvests.  Even then, most hunters still were not alarmed by the presence of CWD.

I believe however, that the results of an 8-year whitetail deer study done in a region of Wyoming where CWD was endemic in whitetails, mule deer and elk will change the thinking of hunters. That study was released last year and it shed light on the potential negative outcome for areas with CWD.

In that area, 29 percent of the deer had CWD in 1999, but by 2010 this jumped to 42 percent for does and 29 percent for bucks, with an overall prevalence of 35 percent. Here are the alarming results from that study. CWD-positive deer in that area were 4½ times more likely to die each year than deer that did not carry CWD. And as has been shown in other areas, bucks were 1.7 times more likely to die than does. One final result: the annual decline in the number of deer in that area was 10.4 percent. Of course hunter harvest and other natural mortality was part of that, but CWD played a big role.

One other interesting result of that Wyoming study. Hunter-killed deer had CWD at a higher rate than expected compared to non-hunter killed deer. Maybe deer with CWD are less wary. We don’t know that answer to that. If they are less wary, then mountain lion predation may increase for diseased deer. Makes sense.

This study gave state wildlife agencies real data to support their worst fears. Pennsylvania is a relative newcomer to the CWD arena. Let’s look at steps it is taking to slow the spread of CWD. In 2017, new regulations that will focus hunters on the one major area (Disease Management Area 2) where they have CWD were released. That area is in south-central Pennsylvania and is the only area of the state where CWD has been detected in the wild (but, as mentioned above, it was just found in a more northern county).

A total of 22 free-ranging CWD-positive deer were found in DMA 2 from 2012 to 2015. Twenty-five free-ranging deer tested positive in 2016. Deer farms are probably the trigger. In the past two years, the disease has been found in three deer facilities in that area. Because of the findings of the spread of wild deer and game farms, DMA 2 has been expanded significantly eastward, increasing its area from 2,846 square miles to 4,095 square miles. Understand that in former years hunters could use their DMAP doe permits anywhere in DMA 2, but now if hunters want to use their Deer Management Assistance Program doe permits, they have to focus in two new smaller DMAP units within DMA 2. In short, the Game Commission wants deer killed in high numbers in these CWD hot areas.

All the above is presented to try to help hunters understand that CWD is really bad for our deer, and unless slowed significantly or stopped it could change your deer hunting forever. One thing is certain: We need more research and we need it now. Hunters need to urge local and federal politicians to somehow find dollars to study this disease. There are things we need to learn about deer genetics that could lead to a solution. There are things we need to learn about killing prions that could help. In short, there is a lot we do not know about CWD except that it will not just go away, and it kills every deer that gets the disease.

Every day more deer get CWD as the range of this disease continues to spread. Where will this end? We don’t know.

Bonus: Using Urine-Based Scents

Hunters have used “in-heat” urine scents for many years. Put near your tree stand, or used on a drag line, they have proven to be effective. In recent years a few states have banned their use to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The real question here is what are the chances that prions are in the urine you purchase to use in the field? Good question. There is no doubt that deer urine is part of the CWD problem, and the urine-based deer farmers have formed a group as part of the ATA Deer Protection Program. Those participating (and almost 100 percent of the major urine companies are participants) have established rules that go beyond federal regulations to significantly lower the chance that the deer they use to collect urine do not have CWD. Monitoring for CWD is increased, inspections are increased and other proactive practices are used.

Does this mean that CWD cannot be spread via deer-based urine products? No. However, the chance of that happening when you purchase urine from participants in this program is very, very small. In fact, compared to other ways CWD is spread, using urine scents is probably insignificant. The major reason for that is the fact that the chances of urine being collected from a CWD-positive deer on these farms are almost zero. -- Dave Samuel


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