Deer and deer hunters often move across state borders.
A mule deer doe captured and fitted with a GPS collar in Wyoming was tracked traveling 250 miles into Idaho and back. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming car license plates are regularly seen on vehicles parked at Montana trailheads and walk-in hunting areas during the deer and elk season.
Such mobility helps explain why chronic wasting disease has been found in deer in 23 states and two Canadian provinces. In the worst-infected areas of Wisconsin, CWD has been detected in 30 to 50 percent of the tested adult buck whitetail deer. In one year, the prevalence of CWD in whitetail deer in Michigan climbed from nine animals to 61, and the disease had jumped to counties miles away from where it was initially found.
These details were just part of the information conveyed during a meeting of wildlife agency, hunting industry and conservation organization officials in Bozeman last week, hosted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Together, the groups are trying to educate the public while highlighting the need for investment in scientific research to better understand the disease.
“Our industry honestly believes that CWD is the single largest threat to deer and deer hunting,” said Chris Dolnack, chief marketing officer for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
While captive deer breeding facilities in the Midwest, southern and eastern states have been pointed to as transferring CWD from state to state as captive deer are sold and shipped for breeding, wildlife officials note that hunters are just as likely to be responsible.
“We have a lot of people moving deer at 55 to 60 mph down the highway,” said Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist at the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at New York’s Cornell University.
The deer Schuler referred to are ones in the back of a successful hunter’s pickup truck or trailer. Deer spinal tissue and brains are known infectious agents if the animal has chronic wasting disease.
“Hunters move way more carcasses than the captive cervid industry,” said Grant Woods, creator of GrowingDeer.tv.
Because of that fact, 41 states now have carcass transportation rules, according to Brian Murphy, CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association.
On the radar
In Montana, when CWD was detected in Carbon and Liberty counties last year, the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks mandated that only deer parts — minus the head and spine — could be moved from the areas in an attempt to contain possible CWD contamination.
“Right now in Montana it’s new on our radar,” said John Vore, Game Management Bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “What we’re worried about is that over time it will lose momentum.”
That happened in Arkansas, where — only a year after CWD was found — 25 percent of hunters in the CWD zone were unaware the disease existed, Murphy said.
“CWD fatigue is a real thing,” said Kelly Straka, supervisor of the Wildlife Health Section at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “But the second we adopt a fatalist attitude, we’re done.”
Because hunting is big business, and Americans are always worried about generating more income, everyone should be concerned about chronic wasting disease and do everything they can to ensure it doesn’t spread, officials agreed.
In Montana, the sport generated an estimated $324 million in 2016 and supported about 3,300 jobs, according to an FWP study. Nationally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that America’s 14 million hunters generate $22.1 billion in sales, creating 700,000 jobs.
“If hunting were a company, the money spent by sportsmen would put us in the Fortune 500,” Dolnack said.
As an example of interest in deer hunting in Montana, last year more than 211,000 deer licenses were sold to residents, and more than 33,600 to nonresidents.
The impacts of CWD’s spread are many.
If the disease causes deer numbers to decline — drops of 20 to 25 percent have been documented where CWD is present — fewer hunting licenses will be sold. Fewer hunters mean less dollars — not only for trade organizations that sell ammunition, camouflage clothing and archery equipment — but also for the state wildlife agencies that collect a large portion of their funding from hunting license sales.
“Deer are a lot more than an antler delivery system,” said Ryan Bronson, director of conservation and public policy for Vista Outdoor, an outdoor gear manufacturer based in Utah.
Outbreaks of CWD can also drop property values, especially lands purchased in trophy deer areas by hunters specifically so the landowner can have exclusive access to the animals.
“People invest in these properties because they are trophy whitetail areas,” Murphy said.
In spite of what’s known about the always fatal disease and its repercussions, Dan Forster, vice president and chief conservation officer for the Archery Trade Association, said, “most people do not take it seriously.”
“We need to invest in the things we know help battle this disease,” he added, such as research and surveillance.
To that end, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced legislation last year seeking $60 million for state and tribal wildlife agencies to research and manage CWD. The bill, which would amend the federal Animal Health Protection Act, has languished since its introduction.
In an attempt to build momentum for such funding of research and education of the public, Straka said the entire hunting community needs to take up the fight against CWD.
“Let’s move away from the blame game,” she said. “We’re all accountable to not make things worse.”