CWD: Coming to a County Near You!

AJ Gall

It’s inevitable, like cancer, CWD continues to spread across the nation and has no known cure.  Chronic Wasting Disease is here to stay.  If it’s not already in your state, it’s only a matter of time.  CWD has been around since the 1960’s, but has recently been spreading to satellite locations across North America at a rapid pace.  Currently 27 states and provinces have tested positive for CWD, most commonly across the Midwest.  With CWD making unexplained leaps and bounds across the country it’s critical that state agencies and hunters understand the risks and challenges involved with this industry threatening disease.

Recently, CWD has jumped across Wisconsin to a deer herd in Eau Claire County, of which several deer escaped the previous month (Eau Claire County borders the famed Big Buck Capital of the World – Buffalo County, WI).  Also during 2015,  Texas, a state that has long since avoided CWD despite being the epicenter of captive deer breeding in the USA, a white-tailed deer tested positive in Medina County.  Michigan also joined the ranks of CWD positive states in May, 2015.  Arkansas was the latest state to join the unfortunate list in October of 2015. This is a growing and scary trend.


CWD Prevalence In North America | Map 2016

Chronic Wasting Disease prevalence in North America.

Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance

Chronic Wasting Disease is 100% fatal and this protein-gone-wrong should scare the crap out of you, especially if you are a hunter or even if you rely on the economic stimulus hunting provides to small town USA.  CWD holds the potential power to cripple the hunting industry the same way the great stock market crash of 1929 crippled America.

There is no greater acting force than fear, which is exactly why I’m here to scare you . . . because fear invokes action.  Being from Wisconsin, the fear was great in 2002 and dramatically impacted hunter participation to the tune of over 100,000 less license sales than the previous year.  That’s over $2 million lost in license sales alone, not to mention the economic boost hunters provide to local gas stations, hotels, resorts, sporting goods stores, taverns, and other local amenities small and big towns provide.  Clearly, this scared people.  So why is it now that people seem to shrug it off and accept it?  This may not be the case of the newbie states, but it is in Wisconsin.  Perhaps it’s because there is no cure or effective containment method for this disease.  Or perhaps it’s because it has not been shown to infect humans or livestock yet.  So why should we be afraid of this disease?

It is not wrong to be scared, but to be scared to level of non-participation only aids in the spread of the disease, a la Wisconsin 2002.  Hunters play a critical role in the battle to control Chronic Wasting Disease, however, they are not the only ones needed to slow the prevalence of CWD as history has shown.  Below you will find some of the unique and scary challenges CWD presents.

  1. There is no effective control method. Once the prion is there, it’s there, and it does not die.

  2. The infectious prions (protein-gone-wrong) can lie dormant in the soil for over five years.

  3. The prions can be absorbed and transmitted through plants and spread through feces and saliva. With those kinds of qualities, there’s no stopping it, just slowing it.

  4. It threatens a multi-billion dollar industry supported by tradition, passion and adventure. Just think about how your life would change without hunting related activities?

States need to learn from each other

Wisconsin and Illinois have been at the forefront of Chronic Wasting Disease within white-tailed deer populations across the U.S. since it was first discovered in 2002 – this was the first time it was discovered east of the Mississippi and in wild white-tailed deer.

A Case Study

The following information takes a look at two different CWD management techniques that took place in Illinois and Wisconsin during the same time frame: 2003 – 2012.  The article in reference can be found in its entirety here: The Importance of Localized Culling in Stabilizing Chronic Wasting Disease Prevalence in White-tailed Deer Populations.

Before we begin the discussion take a look at the following graph.  Something should jump out at you immediately.


CWD Prevalence in Wisconsin and Illinois

Annual chronic wasting disease prevalence in Illinois and Wisconsin.

What do you notice?  Where did things take a turn for the worse in Wisconsin?  You should have noticed something happened in 2007 and continues to escalate on an exponential-like curve since then.  So what happened in Wisconsin?

The government’s attempt at complete herd eradication near the infected areas severely limited the deer population while doing little to prevent the spread of CWD.  It was however, maintaining it as the graph shows, as was Illinois’ approach.  During 2007 government culling was severely reduced due to disgruntled hunters and landowners.   The result was a significant increase in CWD prevalence surrounding the epicenters in Dane and Iowa counties.

Now let’s look at Illinois’ approach.  Why has there been significantly different results?  Is it because the state line magically stops the spread of CWD?  Yeah, that’s probably it.  Well, it actually kind of does in a non-physical, more philosophical way. Enter politics.  The different political approach taken by each state dramatically impacted management decisions with regards to the disease.  So maybe the state line is sort of magical…I mean, look at the graph.  Clearly they are doing something right in terms of effectively managing CWD prevalence given there are no cures or vaccines to destroy it within the environment.

The differing methods of the two neighboring states is the reason why we see the enormous difference in CWD prevalence rates today.

  • Wisconsin’s method (2003-2007) – attempt to completely eradicate every animal within a 411 square mile area utilizing government culling and increased hunter harvest opportunities.

  • Illinois method (2003 – 2012) – localized deer culling (sharp shooting) efforts where CWD was found (based on the Public Land Survey System of 24 sq. mile units). Simply put, they targeted the disease epicenters (smaller area, less deer killed, less disgruntled hunters, effective disease control). This approach has proven effective by maintaining a 1% prevalence rate over the years.

  • Wisconsin severely reduced government culling back in 2007 and has since stepped back to a “monitor and surveillance” approach, relying on hunter harvest as the only means of proactive control. Since 2007, CWD prevalence rates in Iowa and Dane Counties have risen to over 20%.

Open for Discussion

Disclaimer: These are simply my opinions as a hunter with a biological interest based off of the facts and information I have understood.  If you don’t agree, feel free to leave your comments below.

Sitting in southeastern Wisconsin, I have a real fear and vested interest in the way Wisconsin has gone about maintaining/limiting this disease that is here to stay.  They now plan to continue a nearly hands-off approach moving forward.  Does science mean nothing?  Did we not just pay a lot of money for a ‘Deer Czar’?  Back in 2002, this was new and scary and nothing was known on effective control methods of Chronic Wasting Disease, thus, I cannot lay blame on Wisconsin for how they initially handled control efforts.  Despite becoming extremely unpopular amongst many landowners, it was a learning process.  Don’t they say you should learn from your mistakes?  This is where my disappointment lies.  It has now been 7 years since the Wisconsin public got their way, and government culling efforts were abandoned.

In my opinion, both the state and we as hunters of the state were wrong.  Wisconsin took the “kill all” approach, while Illinois took the “systematic killing” approach.  This ultimately led to one state of hunters accepting the control methods and the other being extremely ticked off about actions severely harming the sport and animal they loved.  Both methods were successful leading into 2007, but only one prevailed.

Public support is a very important factor.  This is not the time nor disease for Wisconsin to still be stuck in the “monitoring” stage.  It’s been seven continuous years of rising prevalence rates . . . something needs to change and I’d say looking to Illinois would be a good start.

On the Bright Side

For Wisconsin, there isn’t much of one.  For other states however, they now know what to do (IL) and what not to do (WI).  That’s a tremendous advantage for the states who have recently contracted CWD such as Michigan and Missouri.  They can act immediately and hopefully limit the spread and prevalence amongst their state, while still maintaining public support and successful hunting seasons.  As of now, Chronic Wasting Disease is here to stay and spread.  How we as hunters educate and inform others will have a lasting impact on how the future of this disease plays out.

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About The Author
From Woods to Table

AJ Gall

AJ Gall's prior hunting and wildlife experiences began long ago and make him the perfect contributing deer hunting guru.  As a habitat consultant under Dr. Grant Woods, AJ has worked on properties in 13 different states, amassing over 25,000 acres of quality deer management. He now uses that knowledge to help clients find their dream hunting properties as a licensed real estate agent in Wisconsin.  


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