July 14, 2021
By Josh Honeycutt
This is Part 2 of our series on how CWD is affecting deer populations and deer hunting. You can read Part 1 here.
As Chronic Wasting Disease continues to spread in deer herds across the country, it is causing long-term effects to how wildlife officials manage both deer herds and the disease itself. As a result, deer hunting as we know it, is likely to change. And these changes aren’t going to come years into the future. They’re likely to happen soon, and some, like baiting and deer urine bans, as well as carcass transport laws, are already affecting deer hunters. Here’s what the future of deer hunting may look like as CWD spreads virtually unchecked across the U.S.
The Future of Deer Hunting
Unless major advancements are discovered, deer hunting will change in the future. That’s a given fact. And based on current thoughts, CWD could not only impact how people hunt, but if they do at all.
“At some point, the herd cannot sustain the same level of hunter harvests,” said Brian Murphy, a wildlife biologist with HuntStand. “At least, not compared to what it once could. Over time, CWD can and will greatly decrease the number of animals in the herd, and that translates to fewer deer to harvest. In areas that perhaps used to sustain 20-plus percent annual removal, a herd might get to the point where it can’t sustain any hunting mortality, or perhaps buck-only hunting mortality. That’s a huge change.”
The experts even suggest that it could be limited to shooting younger bucks, as CWD is more prevalent in older deer. Murphy thinks that long-term, that might be the only future in some areas.
He’s more worried about the short-term impacts, though. This disease not only affects the long-term activities of hunters but also the near term. In fact, it changes virtually everything hunters do.
“It puts an incredible burden on the hunter, with regard to testing, concern over diseased animals, compliance with state regulations, carcass disposal — it changes everything,” Murphy said. “I think that it’s a huge burden that becomes the new norm. That concerns me from a hunter recruitment and retention standpoint.”
It’s true, while the diehards and extremely passionate hunters will soldier on, some people just don’t care enough about it to deal with the complications that immediately follow the discovery of CWD in an area. But all of which is necessary to help limit the spread.
For example, those who hunt in infected areas should not take deer carcasses outside of it. That includes infectious parts such as brain matter, spines and more. These things can spread the disease. Guidelines are in place for a reason.
According to Adams, more hunters are impacted each year as the disease continues to spread. Some choose to stop hunting, but others continue hunting and opt to help fight the spread of disease.
Whether CWD has been discovered or not, hunters shouldn’t transport carcasses outside of disease surveillance areas, or across county or state lines. And if people are aware of someone potentially moving infectious deer parts (or live deer), they should notify authorities. We can’t be moving cervids, dead or alive.
“Support measures to stop all live movement of deer or elk,” said Kip Adams, the chief conservation officer with the National Deer Association (NDA). “They can support restrictions on moving the high-risk parts of harvested deer. They can make sure their hunting buddies are aware of travel restrictions on high-risk parts. And they can have their deer or elk tested if they harvest an animal in a disease zone.”
These practices are designed to protect wildlife, and Murphy also suggests hunters get educated about CWD and understand all of the things involved. Other than some research in primates and mice, there is still no definitive evidence that CWD can spread to humans. Still, the best thing to do is to not consume animals you know are infected with CWD or any other disease. If you send a deer off to be tested and it comes back positive, and the meat is in your freezer, discard of it properly, such as in a landfill.
State-Level Impacts of CWD
The disease is now in more than half of the states in the country. In areas where it’s been there longer, we’re starting to see what CWD can do, and how bad it can get. In locations where it’s only been present a short time, hunters are just getting a taste for the major inconveniences that come with it.
Make no mistake, regardless of when it was introduced, virtually every state in America labels CWD as the single greatest threat to wild deer herds. I know this because I contacted each and every agency and DNR in the country, and most of them cite this disease as their most worrisome concern.
This is affecting states in every region of the nation, and other countries, and is hitting hard even in what some refer to as top whitetail destinations, such as Iowa.
“The biggest challenge or threat facing Iowa's deer population, and that of many states, is CWD,” said Tyler Harms, biometrician for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “The disease continues to spread in Iowa, albeit slowly, and we continue to monitor the disease closely and allow additional harvest opportunities in areas where we have found the disease to slow the spread. I strongly encourage hunters anywhere in Iowa to visit our website to learn more about CWD in Iowa and what they can do to help slow the spread of the disease.”
Just to the south, Missouri is battling it, too. According to Jason Isabelle, cervid program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), CWD has a great potential to affect Missouri’s deer herd. It was first detected in free-ranging deer in 2012 and now exists in 18 counties.
“Evidence from some other states has shown that when CWD prevalence rates become high enough, the disease can cause deer populations to decline,” Isabelle said. “The MDC has taken an aggressive CWD surveillance and management approach to protect the state’s deer herd by limiting disease spread and maintaining low prevalence in affected areas.”
Another very popular state for non-resident deer hunters, Kansas is starting to see the devastating effects. According to Levi Jaster, big game program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, CWD is still spreading, and some areas may now be seeing some population effects potentially caused by CWD.
Of course, every state handles the discovery of CWD differently. While some agencies and DNRs establish statewide regulations, others restrict guidelines to areas within a certain distance of the diseased area. One example of this is Ohio. Michael Tonkovich, the deer program administrator for Ohio Department of Natural Resources, says the discovery of CWD in its wild herd will mean more work for staff and some small inconveniences for hunters in the disease surveillance area.
In some places, the presence of the disease has led to new hunting opportunities. Tennessee is one such place. James Kelly, a biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, expresses his opinion that hunters should take advantage of Unit CWD in western Tennessee. There’s an early-season velvet hunt there with more liberal regulations.
“Learn about CWD and the differences between Unit CWD versus CWD positive and CWD high-risk counties,” Kelly said. “At present, these are the same group of counties, but once testing begins for the season, the latter could change depending on the location of positive test results. If this occurred, the associated carcass transport and feeding restrictions apply immediately and automatically.”
Even in states where it hasn’t been found yet, agencies are working tirelessly to keep CWD at bay and outside of their borders. Kentucky is one such place.
“In Kentucky, the biggest challenge we are facing is promoting why hunters should be concerned about CWD and what it means for our deer herd,” said Kyle Sams, deer and elk program biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Because of the complexity CWD brings, it is very hard to communicate those concerns effectively. CWD is a slow-moving disease that will have long-term effects on our herd. CWD has not been detected in Kentucky, but it’s not far away.”
It’s closing in on the Bluegrass State, though, only a few counties away from its border. According to Jonathan Shaw, the same holds true for North Carolina, as it’s been detected 33 miles from the border. Even Canadian provinces are doing what they can to stop CWD at the door.
“CWD has not been detected in B.C. to date, however, there are occurrences close to the border in other jurisdictions,” said Stephen Maclver, regulations and policy analyst for the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations, and Rural Development. “In some areas of the province, close to the borders with Alberta and Montana, hunters are required to submit the heads of harvested deer for CWD testing.”
Each year, states revise their CWD rules and guidelines. For example, Steve Griffin, big game wildlife biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks, says hunters should be aware of new CWD regulations. They recently changed the regulations for transporting and disposing of deer and elk carcasses from other states, as well as deer taken within South Dakota. These new changes will take effect this season.
Glimmers of Hope
While everything surrounding CWD is seemingly dark and depressing, not everything is doom and gloom. There are flashes of good news and sparks of hope.
“There is some research within the deer breeding industry where they’ve identified a particular genome in whitetails that is less susceptible to CWD,” Murphy said. “I wouldn’t say the science is there yet, but at some stage in the future, there is a possibility of producing a genetically resistant whitetail. If that’s the case, and we go down that slippery slope of relocation again, there are some real challenges and headaches with it.”
It’s important to understand this would be extremely costly, and very impractical. But who knows what will be considered necessary, practical or impractical once CWD reaches its latter stages.
Another bright spot has been developing over the past couple of years. Testing is getting cheaper, easier, faster and more accessible. That’s a good thing for hunters and researchers alike.
“The RT-QuIC test for detecting CWD is a major advancement, as is the MN research (MN-QuIC) showing the potential for test results to hunters within 24 hours,” Adams said.
That’s huge, as it will allow hunters to learn much quicker if their meat is safe for consumption, or if they should responsibly discard it. Hunters are more likely to put up with testing their harvests if the results take hours and not days, weeks or months. As bad as it sounds, reducing hassle is important to minimizing hunter number declines in the face of CWD.
Ultimately, most people involved with CWD admit that there is still way more that’s unknown than known. The road to beating a disease that’s neither alive nor dead, which is the case for all prions, will be long, winding and terribly difficult to navigate. But in the end, most experts think we’ll find a way to overcome it.
“I’m an optimist and I believe we’ll beat the disease,” Adams said. “It’s not going to be easy, and it will take a closer working relationship between hunters and their state wildlife agencies, but I believe we’ll win this fight.”
The Essentials Gear Box.
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