Whitetail deer are the most hunted big game animal in the U.S. Hands down, more people hunt deer than anything else, with more than eight out of 10 licensed hunters nationwide attempting to fill whitetail tags each fall. However, chronic wasting disease (CWD) is spreading like wildfire through deer herds, also threatening elk and moose populations across the nation, and the hunters who depend on them.
CWD is a fatal neurological disease which currently infects deer, elk, and moose in 28 states. It’s caused by a prion—a misfolded protein that accumulates in the nervous system of infected animals and can lie dormant in soil for years. It is always fatal but often takes years to manifest. However, the bipartisan Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act could offer some help to agencies and hunters dealing with this deadly disease.
What’s the Big Deal with CWD? Beyond its effects on herd health, CWD poses risks to hunters and can jeopardize state wildlife agency budgets as surveillance, testing, management, and research strain on already stretched bottom-lines.
“Our agencies have a lot of responsibilities when it comes to deer and elk,” Noelle Thompson, a wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife, told MeatEater. “We’re tasked with making sure we know the status of CWD in our states, but we also want to make sure hunters feel comfortable consuming venison. Hunter harvest almost never lines up with our surveillance needs, plus the cost of testing for CWD in a single deer exceeds the cost of a deer tag in our state, so we must rely on external funding.”
In the West, where CWD also infects blacktail and mule deer as well as elk and moose, the problems are just as complicated.
“Even though this disease has been on the landscape in the West for a few decades now, we don’t really know the extent to which it impacts mule and blacktail deer populations,” said Joel Pedersen, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “However, we do know that keeping track of CWD is doing a number on state agency budgets. This influx of money will be critical for states and tribes to do additional surveillance and mitigation, without having to tap into money that has been marked for otherwise critical habitat projects.”
Who is Involved with the CWD Disease Research & Management Act? The United States has a long history of federal aid for wildlife management activities, especially when it comes to deer and other big game species.
Unfortunately, that help has been tied up in congressional procedures and politics for the last several years. Since 2016, Congress has made a few million dollars available annually to help states and tribes grapple with research questions and management issues, however, this spending is nowhere near enough to help state and tribal wildlife agencies with the costs they’re bearing.
So, last spring, just about every politician with an interest in deer or deer hunting, got together to write the CWD Research and Management Act.
“This CWD bill is a perfect example of the power that our hunting and conservation groups have when we work together,” said Tony Schoonen, CEO of the Boone and Crockett Club. “Like in this case, the American Wildlife Conservation Partners is often a venue for our organizations to present a united front and work with Members of Congress who care about this issue in a more coordinated way.”
The act entails an authorization of $70 million with $35 million of that pot dedicated to research activities and the other half dedicated to funding management strategies including more testing, disposal sites, and ensuring agency biologists are available for an all-hands-on-deck approach.
“The Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act is vitally important to the longevity of America’s cervids and our hunting heritage,” said Torin Miller, director of policy for the National Deer Association. “This bill will take some pressure off of state and tribal agencies, ensuring that robust CWD management programs are in place and that other wildlife management programs continue to get as much funding and attention as possible. Additionally, the act will fund and encourage researchers across the country to continue to look for potential solutions to manage the disease and curb its spread. The bill’s importance cannot be overstated.”
Fortunately, the infrastructure for this bill is just as strong as the coalition of supporters who have rallied behind it. State and tribal wildlife management agencies have established scientific plans and best management practices, plus some of the best wildlife researchers in the country are focused on finding solutions to help combat CWD.
What Does H.R.5608 Mean for Hunters? As of this fall, more hunters are chasing deer, elk, and moose in states with CWD than in states without it. The severity of the situation is hitting closer to home than it ever has before.
"I hate to say it, but CWD has become a simple reality of life for me and many other hunters across the country,” said Mark Kenyon, MeatEater team member and founder of Wired to Hunt. “I actually don't give it much thought anymore, other than knowing that if you don't have it yet in your neck of the woods, you don't want it. The presence of CWD has not, to this point, kept me from hunting in a given area. But I make a point to be aware of its presence, or lack thereof, when hunting new places and to look into testing capabilities in those locations.”
So far, CWD has not made the jump from deer to humans, but the CDC does recommend against eating venison from infected deer. Despite the warning, there are some hunters who don’t want to test their deer and wouldn’t care if one of them came up positive for these infectious prions. However, it’s important to make sure that there are plenty of accessible resources for those who do want to take this extra step.
“I've had a number of deer tested locally where I hunt in Michigan in a CWD adjacent county and to this point have not received a positive result,” Mark said. “I hope it stays that way, but that, of course, might be wishful thinking. While I know there's no evidence that CWD can cross over to humans, if I do ever get one of those positives, I'd likely not feed that deer to my kids. It will be a damn sad day when I have to dump a freezer full of meat in the trash.”
At the end of the day, bills, laws, and money don’t change things on the ground. People do. But in this case at least, those people—in agencies, in laboratories, and in tree stands—need all the help that they can get. When you’re hunting next fall, make sure you take a couple extra steps to stop the spread of CWD, and if you don’t know where to start, the MeatEater team can help with that too.
“For now, I'll do my part to slow the spread where I can,” Mark concluded. “By following all CWD guidelines to the T and by supporting further research, such as that funded by this new legislation, with hopes that a better solution will come around in the near future."
To learn more about CWD, visit the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance website at https://cwd-info.org/
Feature image via Matt Hansen.