It is a ritual performed by tens of thousands of hunters across whitetail country every deer season. Dab a little doe-in-estrous urine on a boot, walk to the stand, dip a wick in the bottle, hang it from a limb, and wait for a buck to show up. Does it work? Lots of hunters think so. Although current figures are vague, one estimate places the deer lure market at $44 million annually. Another suggests it generates more than twice that.
Effective or not, that pre-hunt ritual could earn you a ticket in a growing number of states. The use of natural deer urine is now illegal in South Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, and at least six other states. Even possessing a bottle of doe pee is against the law. A few more states, including Pennsylvania, are considering similar regulations in an effort to combat the spread of chronic wasting disease. The always-fatal deer disease has been detected in 25 states, three Canadian provinces, Finland, Norway, and South Korea.
But exactly how great is the risk of CWD transmission from store-bought deer urine?
Almost zero, according to one researcher. Dr. Nick Haley, a Midwestern University veterinarian and microbiology researcher, says urine bans will not stop or slow the spread of the disease.
“CWD is present in biologically irrelevant levels in the urine of infected deer,” says Haley. “I compare it to mercury in drinking water. If you test almost any source of drinking water, you will find mercury, but how much? Is it enough to cause any harm? It is unfortunate that state agencies have latched on to urine bans as the answer to preventing the spread of CWD.
“It makes it look like they are doing something, but we need more research before we start making these blanket bans.”
Research at Colorado State University by former assistant professor Dr. Davin Henderson found no evidence that deer can become infected by coming in contact with urine from CWD sick deer even after feeding large and unnatural amounts over a multi-year period.
“If you can’t transmit CWD in deer inoculating them with highly infected doses, hunters most certainly aren’t going to spread it using small amounts of scent in a hunting area,” said Henderson. “The volumes of urine required for experimental detection and infection makes the likelihood of urine serving as a natural route of transmissibility infinitely small. Numerous studies have attempted and failed to spread the disease with direct oral inoculation of urine.”
That’s why North American Deer Farmers Association Executive Director Shawn Schafer wonders why so much emphasis is placed on a one-ounce bottle of urine when so many other potential carriers are ignored.
“I hunted in a CWD zone in Saskatchewan, and I had to follow some pretty strict rules about bringing the meat back,” said Schafer. “The only thing I could bring back was the meat and antlers attached to the skull plate. We know that meat can carry the CWD prions, so I could be transporting the disease that way. It can be carried in the mud on my boots and on my vehicle. I’m also a farmer. We transport hay bales across state lines all the time. The plants and the soil in those bales can harbor CWD, but all everyone wants to talk about is a tiny bottle of deer urine that people use a few drops at a time.”
Research conducted at Colorado State University found that the meat of infected animals harbors exponentially more infected prions than urine. Hunters may not be allowed to bring some parts of deer back to their home state, but they can bring meat. Lots of them are. According to data compiled by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), hunters from 49 states killed 31,291 deer in Wisconsin’s four-county CWD “hot zone” during the 2016–17 season. Of those killed, 29,000 were not tested for the disease, and much of that meat was taken across state lines. And there is a high probability some of it came from infected animals.
What’s more, the prions can remain in soil for years, and plants are known to take them up. Why are states focused on farm-collected urine and not on other potential sources of contamination?
Every step to reduce the threat is a step in the right direction, said William McKinley, deer program coordinator at Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP). CWD was discovered in Mississippi in February 2018, and MDWFP enacted a urine ban starting in July.
“What is an acceptable level of prions in urine? How many does it take?” he asked. “Until we have more answers, which we don’t yet, we would rather err on the safe side. Low risk does not mean no risk.”
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) set guidelines to help reduce the risk of new CWD transmissions. Most of the group’s focus is on the transportation of live animals, but one “Best Management Practice” is a urine ban.
“We are following the Best Management Practices established by AFWA,” said McKinley. “So are other states that have banned deer urine products.”
AFWA’s guidelines also include other “alternative scientifically grounded management practices for reducing or eliminating risk of disease transmission.” Among them is a “ban on all parts, including meat and antlers, from CWD-positive states/provinces/territories. This alternative will restrict movement of all carcass parts and reduce the risk of moving prions from known CWD-positive areas to uninfected environments.”
So far, though, no state has enacted a blanket ban on the importation of deer meat or antlers from known CWD states or even areas with high infection rates. That isn’t necessary, said McKinley. Meat generally isn’t placed in the environment where deer can come in contact with the infected prions.
“It goes into the freezer and then into your mouth,” he said. “At this point, we don’t see any reason to ban the importation of meat.”
That may be on the horizon, suggested Haley, who also consults the deer farm industry on CWD issues and research.
“I think a growing number of states are at least starting to have that conversation,” he said. “The data compiled by QDMA about how many deer were killed in the part of Wisconsin with a high rate of CWD by non-resident hunters was really eye-opening. If states want to get serious about this, a total ban on of the importation of any deer part may be another way to reduce the chance of CWD showing up in places where it has not been detected yet.”
Such a ban would likely face stiff opposition from the hunting community—especially from outfitters in places like Wisconsin, Illinois, and Kansas and hunters who travel to those states. Deer in all three states have tested positive for CWD. However, 80 percent of hunters support urine bans, according to a National Deer Alliance survey. Most said they actually use or have used urine and other natural deer products. McKinley said they received no negative feedback on his state’s ban.
“We had a 30-day comment period, and we advertised this in a variety of outlets. We didn’t get a single negative comment, and I haven’t spoken to anyone who was upset about the ban.”
The captive deer industry isn’t happy. Schafer doesn’t know how many farms collect and sell urine, but he figures there are around a “hundred or so” large producers and several hundred smaller ones. Since the first urine bans were enacted, the NADFA has stepped up efforts to prevent the disease from spreading, including better monitoring and record-keeping.
As per U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements, every deer that dies for any reason in a captive deer facility is tested for CWD.
The Archery Trade Association (ATA) developed a series of standards that help ensure urine products are CWD-free. So far, 30 companies have joined ATA’s Deer Protection Program. They buy urine only from farms that agree to follow state and federal guidelines and ATA’s additional safeguards, which include additional herd monitoring and testing when necessary.
That’s still not good enough for some states, but a few are rethinking their bans. Louisiana, for example, now allows urine from facilities that adhere to the ATA’s program. Mississippi considered the same thing, but the MDWFP commission tabled the suggestion.
In the meantime, the disease likely will show up in new states and regions. Haley won’t be surprised if it is detected in an additional 10 states within 15 years. Based on current science, it’s unlikely a ban on store-bought deer urine will prevent that.