Help Fight Chronic Wasting Disease

CWD can be spread from deer to deer where infected deer have deposited the disease-causing prions. Photo by Brett Billings, US Fish & Wildlife Service

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

Chronic Wasting Disease may be the most serious threat to deer we have ever seen.

Is CWD worse than EHD, the other disease we’re hearing about? Yes, definitely. Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (sometimes called “blue tongue”) affects deer that get bitten by an infected midge. EHD is fatal, but it’s seasonal, and occurs mainly in dry areas where the midge thrives along the marginal edges of stagnant water. Deer don’t transmit it to one another, and when freezing weather kills the midges, the disease stops. CWD can contaminate deer habitat for years.

Is CWD worse than poaching? Without a doubt. Poachers are game thieves so poaching is a crime. We need strong enforcement and serious penalties, but poaching doesn’t threaten the entire deer population. CWD does.

Is CWD worse than habitat loss, the threat we hear about most often? Yes. Habitat loss is a huge issue as humans rob wildlife of habitat by building new homes, shopping centers, golf courses and industrial sites. But even where habitat is unlimited, CWD will destroy deer.

CWD is a bigger threat than these other perils because everywhere a diseased deer goes, he leaves infectious “prions” behind. The prion, a “mis-folded protein,” is the disease-causing agent of “spongiform” diseases. It’s contained in feces and remains viable in the soil for years. When it infects a deer, it makes the brain spongy, causing death. And it has no cure.

Deer are what ecologists call a keystone species. The Oxford English Dictionary defines that as “a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically.” That makes deer management a critical tool wildlife professionals use to benefit other species. If CWD causes deer populations to decline, it will have a devastating impact on hunting as a means of wildlife conservation.

Hunters have financed wildlife conservation for more than a century, causing many species to thrive. Allocating the revenue necessary to fight CWD brings a further decline in wildlife management funds critical to state game departments. Wisconsin, for example, spent $32 million in its first five years of combating CWD. That money won’t go into habitat, research, enforcement, and other programs that benefit all wildlife.

Any loss of hunters also reduces Pittman-Robertson funding for wildlife through an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery gear. Pittman-Robertson funds are distributed to the states for wildlife management and total as much as $324 million dollars per year—no mere pittance. And that’s only a part of the monetary equation. In New York, for example, deer hunting brings a whopping $1.5 billion annually to the state’s economy.

A decline in deer populations through CWD will undoubtedly cause some hunters to decide hunting is not worth the effort. Others may think all deer are diseased, and will leave the sport for that reason. No hunter wants to pursue diseased animals, and hunters might also worry that CWD will infect them and their families. It’s not hard to see where this problem leads. It could be devastating not just to whitetail deer but to the intricate balance of ecosystems.

Even though whitetails, mule deer, elk, and moose are all susceptible, no one is predicting CWD will exterminate whitetails or other deer species. However, if it gets out of control it could end hunting as we know it, so hunters must play a critical role in CWD management. Here are four things all hunters can do right now to be part of the long-term solution:

  1. Don’t panic. Although CWD has spread far beyond Colorado where it was first discovered in mule deer 50 years ago, the vast majority of deer are still disease-free.
  2. Refrain from feeding deer. A feeding site brings deer into close proximity with one another. It does little to help deer and can facilitate infected deer contacting healthy deer.
  3. Study the issue by visiting state game department websites and reading scientific reports about CWD, so you can speak intelligently about it. Don’t be one of those who talk about the CWD problem without understanding it.
  4. Cooperate with the efforts of your state to control CWD by obeying regulations to combat it, such as rules about disposal of harvested deer carcasses from areas where CWD has been known to exist.

Join this fight, because deer of every kind across North America are too great a treasure to lose.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, writing about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. Contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com, and read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.