Deer disease rising as DNR dials back deer herd management

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, November 17, 2013

JANESVILLE--Janesville bait shop owner Marci McCarten says nearly every hunter who's brought in a whitetail deer for registration this fall has opted to have the animal tested for chronic wasting disease.

At It's a Keeper Bait & Tackle, the shop McCarten and her husband, Shawn, own, Shawn cuts open the deers' necks and removes small lymph nodes, which are then sent to a facility to be tested for CWD, a fatal disease that's contagious to deer and threatens deer herds, officials say.

Amid signs the deer disease is on the rise, the state Department of Natural Resources in its 20-county CWD management zone is shifting the focus to heavier testing of deer in Rock and Walworth and a few other adjacent counties.

“They (the DNR) want us to try to get a test sample for every deer that is not a fawn,” Marci McCarten said.

The testing, while it is not mandatory, is being pushed at a slew of local hunter registration sites for deer.

Julie Widholm, a CWD biologist for the DNR, said the agency hopes to get 500 deer tested in the area around Rock County. Officials say the agency's focus on areas around Rock and Walworth counties is part of an annual effort to key on parts of the CWD management zone to check the status and prevalence of CWD. Last year, the DNR had focused on Richland and Sauk counties.

Those counties are among the hardest-hit areas within the CWD management zone, according to DNR maps tracking locations of harvested deer that have tested positive for the disease.

The initial discovery of CWD in Wisconsin came in 2002 and sparked aggressive, active management and culling programs. Wisconsin has dialed back efforts to shrink the deer heard and slow the disease's spread and has instead taken a data-gathering and monitoring approach to management.

DNR officials say the agency has gotten rid of DNR sharp-shooting, longer hunting seasons and the controversial earn-a-buck program, which required hunters to shoot a doe before shooting a buck. Killing does is an effective way to reduce the size of the deer herd and remove reproductive potential.

Meanwhile, the state has seen an increase in CWD-infected deer.

According to a study released in September by University of Illinois researchers, the prevalence of CWD-infected deer has increased 5 percent since Wisconsin backed away from aggressive culling measures.

At the same time, Illinois continues to manage CWD with culling programs and has seen CWD stay flat at about 1 percent. Deer harvests have increased in Illinois, falling off in only two of 12 counties in the Illinois CWD management zone, according to the study.

The U of I study was done using CWD data from Wisconsin and Illinois and was designed to find whether concentrated management of the deer herd using DNR sharp-shooters and longer hunting seasons in CWD hotspots slowed or flattened the spread of the disease.

Jan Novakofski, one of two University of Illinois researchers who led the study, is a Wisconsin native and deer hunter himself. Novakofski acknowledged there are differences between deer population, migration and herd dispersal as well as landscapes and cover in northern Illinois compared to southern Wisconsin. Even so, the study indicates a connection between Wisconsin's tapering of physical culling of deer and the rise in CWD here, he said.

“It (CWD) is going up in Wisconsin. They (the DNR) recognize it's going up. We looked for other reasons. We were hoping to find a good reason that explained the change besides management,” Novakofski said. “We looked for alternative explanations, but we weren't able to find anything except the change in (DNR) management.

"It doesn't mean there isn't another reason. We just couldn't find it,” Novakofski said.

The U of I report claims as many as 20 percent of adult male deer may have the disease in parts of Wisconsin's core CWD management area.


Mike Foy, a DNR field biologist, said the U of I study is likely accurate in its findings. He said his concern for the deer herd and the specter of human health issues has not waned since the early days of CWD in Wisconsin.

“There's plenty of people that will tell you they're not concerned at all, but I'm every bit as concerned as I was back when it (CWD) first showed up here,” Foy said.

“I've had a little bit more of maybe a realistic idea of what the disease progression was and how it reacted in the other states. It's a serious threat to our deer population and our deer hunting culture," Foy said.

Over time, if left unchecked, the disease can spread, particularly in densely forested parts of the state where deer move from one region of woods to another, infecting other previously unscathed herds of deer, Foy said.

Foy acknowledged Illinois seems to have gotten an edge on Wisconsin with CWD management after Wisconsin rolled back of active herd management programs.

“For whatever reason, they (Illinois) have been able to sustain (CWD management) better than we were able to," Foy said. “If you ask most CWD researchers, you'd say 'is it a good idea to cull sick deer?' Most would say certainly.

"The question is now: What's the technique and how socially acceptable would it be? It's no secret we ran into a lot of political and sociological resistance. There's some disagreement about that in the state, but I side with the people who say the disease is spreading and frequency and numerically with the population,” Foy said.

For years, hunters and the DNR have been at odds over state deer management practices, but early on, when the impact of the disease was relatively unknown, there was as much uncertainty as there was fear.

Janesville deer hunter Steve Bennett said he's always thought the CWD threat was overstated and over-managed by the DNR. He believes the disease was in Wisconsin years before it made big headlines.

Bennett said he tends to view CWD as a natural population control for deer.

"I think you don't have to control nature. Nature controls nature. All they (the DNR) did (with deer culling management) is kill deer and drive them into private land where there's no pressure," he said. 

Hunters for years argued that DNR deer culling efforts have hurt deer herds and hunting.

Tony Martin, a Janesville deer hunter, agrees the main concern for hunters was and still is less about the prevalence of CWD and more about deer herd size.

"Nobody (hunters) liked earn-a-buck, but that's gone now. As far as every hunter I've talked to is concerned, nobody's worried about it (CWD). Everything's going back to normal now," he said.


One paradigm shift Foy finds telling about the state of CWD fear is the growing number of hunters who no longer seem concerned about eating meat from deer they know are infected with CWD.

“Forty percent of the people we'll call and tell they have a sick deer don't have us come an pick it up. Virtually everybody used to (get rid of the deer),” Foy said.

Mad cow disease, which is related to CWD, made headlines in England. It's fatal in humans but only occurs in a genetic subset of people. Only some people can get it, said Novakofski, who got his start researching livestock illnesses.

“If you look at how often people consume mad cow infected tissue and get the disease. It's actually pretty rare,” Novakofski said.

He said it's possible CWD could never transmit to humans or it's possible not enough people have eaten infected deer meat for a human host with the right genetic makeup to allow the disease to take root.

“It's a big unknown,” he said.

Novakofski said he wouldn't gamble over a venison burger if he thought CWD was inside.

“I wouldn't take that risk. I wouldn't want to be that first person who got sick.”

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