Despite record-setting chronic wasting disease infection rates in 2015, the Department of Natural Resources plans only modest increases in its testing and monitoring efforts during the autumn’s deer seasons, which opened Saturday for the state’s approximately 275,000 archery hunters.
The agency continues this low-key approach to chronic wasting disease even though Wisconsin leads the nation in reported CWD infections — 3,146 since February 2002 — and has recorded increased CWD rates 10 straight years.
An indicator of the DNR administration’s disregard for CWD appeared in its weekly news update Sept. 6. This headline, “Wisconsin deer hunters have the opportunity to get their deer tested and help with CWD surveillance,” was the fourth item listed.
What news did the DNR place above that passive announcement? The top news item reminded us that the youth waterfowl and regular season Canada goose hunts were opening. Item No. 2 cautioned waterfowl hunters to help stop the spread of aquatic invasive species, and No. 3 reported that game-bird brood production declined from 2015 levels.
Are we to believe those items are more important than instructing hunters to get deer tested for CWD? After all, Page 33 of the deer hunting regulations carries this advisory from the Wisconsin Division of Public Health: “Venison from deer harvested from CWD Affected Areas (should) not be consumed or distributed to others until CWD test results from the deer are known to be negative.”
Despite that sober reminder buried deep in the pamphlet, the tone of the DNR’s Sept. 6 release basically says, “Hey, if you happen to remember, and it’s not too much trouble, could you maybe let us check your deer for CWD? Pretty please?”
Why so timid about offering a vital public service that helps monitor an always-fatal disease that could jeopardize our deer herd? Let’s not forget what 2015’s tests determined about CWD in Wisconsin:
The CWD infection rate hit a record 9.4 percent, with 295 sick deer among the 3,139 tested.
Recent infection rates were 6 percent in 2014, 5.3 percent in 2013, and 5.1 percent in 2012. In 2010, the rate was 2.9 percent, and in 2008 it was 1.46 percent.
The 3,139 samples were a record low since the DNR increased its monitoring program after finding CWD in February 2002. The previous low for CWD testing was 5,321 in 2011.
This year the DNR hopes to obtain 5,000 CWD samples from hunters statewide. Although that’s up 1,000 from 2015’s goal of 4,000 samples, let’s realize the agency reached only 78.5 percent of last year’s goal.
In hopes of obtaining more samples this year, the DNR’s “Go Wild” electronic-registration system will prompt hunters registering deer from CWD areas to get them tested. The agency will also provide more self-serve kiosks than the five to seven it test-piloted last year. Hunters using the kiosks can fill out a form and drop off deer heads and the upper neck for testing.
The number and location of CWD testing sites and kiosks is still increasing and isn’t complete, but hunters can find the nearest site on the DNR’s online deer-registration page at http://dnr.wi.gov. The DNR also issued news releases Thursday of sampling sites in its five regions.
The DNR’s sluggish approach to CWD monitoring contrasts with Michigan and Missouri, which are trying to avoid becoming the next Wisconsin in the CWD battle. Since confirming its first CWD case in a wild deer in June 2015, the Michigan DNR has tested nearly 4,900 deer, and found seven with the disease.
Michigan also requires hunters in its five-county core CWD area to register deer in person this fall. Likewise, Missouri imposed mandatory in-person deer registration in its 29-county CWD zone. Missouri has detected 33 deer with CWD since its first discovery in 2010.
Wisconsin’s ho-hum approach also disregards recent CWD research in Colorado and Wyoming that encourage increased vigilance.
First, researchers at Colorado State University reported that normal human prion proteins were more susceptible to be converted by CWD prions than those from mad-cow disease prions. “We found that CWD adapts to a new host more readily than (mad cow) and that human (proteins) were unexpectedly prone to misfolding by CWD prions,” they reported.
Granted, CWD has never been linked to the human form of these diseases, Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Even so, mad-cow disease jumped the species barrier to create a new variant of CJD that killed 218 Europeans and four Americans from 1996-2014, and still challenges Great Britain’s blood supply.
Meanwhile, University of Wyoming researchers studying a whitetail herd in southeastern Wyoming found that once CWD becomes endemic, it has the potential to not only limit the herd’s size but eventually eliminate it. Their worst-case scenario predicted that herd’s extinction in 48 years.
The lead researcher, David Edmunds, also reported that CWD didn’t change a doe’s ability to reproduce, but created a younger herd overall and made bucks more susceptible to hunters. The disease seems to progressively worsen the deer’s movement patterns, breeding activities, reaction times to “stimuli,” and habitat choices — even before a deer shows signs of disease.
Edmunds cautions: “This population should serve as an indication of what can happen at high prevalence when CWD has been endemic for an extended time period.” And he concluded with this advice: “This population … stresses the importance of preventing CWD from becoming endemic … rather than attempting to manage it after the fact. Therefore … the best management strategy remains minimizing movement of CWD to new areas.”
So, why doesn’t Wisconsin require mandatory deer registration to ensure scientific assessments of CWD’s prevalence and distribution? Tami Ryan, the DNR’s wildlife health section chief, said the agency discussed that possibility, but decided it wasn’t feasible with the state’s new electronic-registration system. The agency also wants to see if voluntary compliance with sampling improves before reinstating mandatory registration.
Ryan also notes the DNR is embarking on a study assessing the impacts of CWD and predators on deer in southwestern Wisconsin, and is tasking citizens on County Deer Advisory Committees to help evaluate and update the state’s CWD response plan.
That’s all fine, but it’s not enough. Wisconsin deserves the most complete information possible, as well as professional CWD guidance and review by our agencies’ and universities’ top wildlife professionals.
I’m all for citizen-science and public participation, but we shouldn’t trust the future of the state’s deer herd — and possibly our health — to a bunch of guys named “Dave.”
Contact Patrick Durkin, a
writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin, at
or write to him at 721 Wesley St.,