DRIFTLESS - The citizen wildlife conservation and science communities have ramped up their efforts this year to slow and stop the alarming spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the region’s deer herd. But even with all of this attention, experts still acknowledge that the number one tool in the arsenal to fight the fatal disease of whitetail deer remains hunters in the field killing deer.
CWD is one of a class of diseases known as ‘Trans-missible Spongiform En-cephalopathy’ (TSE). ‘Transmissible’ means it can be spread between ani-mals. ‘Spongiform’ means that it resembles a sponge. ‘Encephalopathy’ means that it is a disease of the brain. The disease is fatal in all cases, and has become increasingly common even in younger deer.Beyond killing the deer, there is the need to increase CWD sampling in areas where the disease has been spreading exponentially in recent years. The Southern Farmland district has been on red alert since the alarming spread of the disease from Iowa County into Richland County was documented in recent years. Now, CWD positive deer have been detected in Crawford, Vernon, Grant and Monroe counties.
Kiosks and dumpsters
Andy Novak lives in rural Ferryville where he moved from Southeast Wisconsin to enjoy the rural lifestyle. Novak and his wife who “never buy beef,” hunt to eat. Novak has become highly engaged with the effort to slow the spread of CWD because he “sees it as a threat to his way of life.”
“As a hunter, I believe that I have a responsibility to do what I can to protect the resource for future generations,” Novak explained. “Over the last decade, we’ve lost a lot of crucial time to understand and grapple with the exponential spread of this disease, and we’ve been waiting for the state to do something about it since 2002. Now, we as citizens have to step forward to do our part and to buy time for our scientists to help us figure out a strategy.”
In 2018, Novak ran the sampling station in front of his home on Crawford County C, and also sponsored a dumpster to dispose of carcasses at the intersection of Highways 171 and 35. This year, Novak is using the funds he raised from his 2018 efforts helping the DNR to remove the lymph nodes from deer heads deposited in his sampling box to help pay for two dumpsters.
Novak has also become active as a member of the Conservation Congress’ Ad Hoc Committee for CWD. He explained that the committee emphasizes three major strategies to fight the disease: hunter education, safe disposal of carcasses and sampling your deer.
Retired DNR Warden for Crawford County Dennis Kirschbaum explained that if a hunter samples their deer and it comes back with a result positive for CWD, then they will be issued a replacement tag. The exact process for how this happens was explained by Erin Larson of the DNR Wildlife Health Division.
“If a hunter gets a positive result for CWD for their deer, then we will issue them a replacement tag on their GoWild account,” Larson explained. “If the deer was shot in the 2019 bow season, then the tag will be issued for the gun deer season. If the deer is shot in the gun deer season then the hunter will be issued a tag for the 2020 season or they can contact me to have it issued for 2019.”Erin Larson can be reached at 608-516-2783, or by e-mail at Erin.Larson@wisconsin.gov
“If a hunter gets a positive result for CWD for their deer, then we will issue them a replacement tag on their GoWild account,” Larson explained. “If the deer was shot in the 2019 bow season, then the tag will be issued for the gun deer season. If the deer is shot in the gun deer season then the hunter will be issued a tag for the 2020 season or they can contact me to have it issued for 2019.”
Erin Larson can be reached at 608-516-2783, or by e-mail at Erin.Larson@wisconsin.gov
“The DNR has put a focus on CWD across the state this season focusing on offering free testing and listings of sampling drop-off kiosks on our GoWild website,” Regional DNR Deer Biologist Erica Canania explained. “The sampling is crucial because we need to give our scientists as much data as possible to help understand where the disease is becoming more prevalent, where the department needs to focus our efforts, and what kinds of approaches will best support proactive efforts to protect our deer herds and our hunting tradition.”
Canania said that from the ‘hunter standpoint,’ the program allows hunters a way to safely dispose of their carcasses in a way that will help protect the deer herd, and choosing to sample will help researchers understand how best to fight the disease.“It’s a great way for hunters to take pride in helping with the effort and encourage others to do so as well,” Canania said. “Hunting is an extremely important tradition in Wisconsin and everyone should feel good about helping to protect the resource for future generations.”
The other focus taken by the DNR this year is a cost-share program to put more dumpsters for carcass disposal out in every county in the state. The DNR is paying 50 percent of the cost to fund the deployment of dumpsters. This is crucial because the prions that cause CWD in the body of deer can be spread out in many different tissues. When the deer carcass is left to rot out on the landscape, the prions can get into the soil and even into plants, and could infect healthy deer.
Of even greater concern is the possibility that by moving a carcass from the area where the deer is shot to another area, CWD could be introduced into an area that does not currently have a problem. For this reason, even if you don’t live where you hunt, you can go online and find a dumpster where you can safely dispose of your carcass in your home community.
In addition to the dumpster he funded in 2018 at the intersection of Highways 171 and 35 in Crawford County, rural Ferryville resident Andy Novak has also worked with Grant Slutka of Eastman Meat Locker to host a dumpster at his location this year. Hunters who take their deer to Eastman Locker will be able to sample their deer for CWD, dispose of their carcass in the dumpster, and either have their deer processed or donate it to be processed and distributed to the Gays Mills Food Pantry.
“From my CWD sampling efforts at the box in front of my home, I was able to raise $460 which I am reinvesting into dumpsters this season,” Novak explained. “But even with the DNR cost share this year, the dumpsters will wind up costing about $1,000 each based on weight at the end of the season.”
Novak says that any concerned citizens who want to help with the dumpster effort can send a check directly to Southwest Sanitation to help defray the cost of the dumpsters. Novak said he would also welcome help from individuals who want to help raise funds by assisting him in the removal of lymph nodes from heads dropped off at his sampling station because he says that “this really helps to speed up the process for hunters if we lend the DNR a hand.”
Novak was also very thankful to the Johnson family who run Johnson’s One Stop in Seneca for donating one of the liners that are needed for the dumpsters.
Doug Duren, a landowner from Richland County, is the fifth generation of his family to have hunted their 400-acre property in Cazenovia. His family has been on the front lines of the spread of CWD into Richland County. Duren has been a leader in promoting testing in the county, and last year he and his friends sponsored five dumpsters. This year, due to the DNR cost-share program, all five of the dumpsters are being co-sponsored by the DNR.
“The reason why I have become so passionate about dumpsters and testing is because the disease is running rampant in our herd in Richland County and to fight it we need to take a variety of approaches because it seems that no one single thing will work,” Duren said. “I’ll tell you this, though, if you don’t have it, you don’t want it; and if you do have it, then you’ve got to join the fight for the future of our deer herd and our hunting tradition.”
Duren emphasized that even non-hunters and animal rights activists have become concerned about CWD. This is because the disease causes great suffering for the animal and a painful death. He also discussed the personal choice of people to consume the flesh of a deer that hasn’t been tested.
“Eating deer meat, without testing the deer, in an area where CWD is known to be present is not recommended,” Duren said. “It’s really all in your appetite for taking risks, and this is an especially important reason why hunters should have their deer tested.”
Duren acknowledged that there seems to be a lot of similarity between those that prefer not to test their deer and those who prefer not to test their well water.
“In both cases, individuals are preferring not to know, and this means that they could be taking risks with the health and safety of their families,” Duren said. “If you’re going to fix something, you have to know what you are dealing with – that’s the first step.”
Duren explained that due to lack of other management options available at the state level, the best tool that citizens have to try to control its spread is their firearm. For that reason, given the alarming growth in prevalence of the disease in the Richland County deer herd, Duren and his family try to invite lots of people to hunt on their land. And they insist that every deer taken on their land be tested for CWD.
At the crisis point
Bryan Richards with USGS has been researching CWD for years. At a CWD Summit held in May of 2019 at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, he was quick to explain to meeting participants that the spread of the disease, from an epidemiological standpoint, is on the point of an exponential leap in this area.
“I grew up on a 600-acre farm near Cataract in Monroe County,” Richards explained. “When I was young, you hardly saw any deer, and at the same deer stand in 1985, I saw 160 deer.”
Richards told participants that between 2001 and 2018, there were 228,000 deer sampled for CWD in Wisconsin. After the legislature eliminated deer registration stations, the sampling was purely voluntary. By the end of 2018, over 5,200 CWD-positive deer had been detected in 26 Wisconsin counties.
“One third of adult male deer shot and sampled in 2018 tested positive for CWD,” Richards said. “The disease has overtaken Richland County, is beginning to spread north and west into Vernon County and also up the Wisconsin River into Adams and Portage counties.”
Richards said the keys to managing the spread of the infection are prevention, monitor new outbreaks, support ongoing research, and provide timely and accurate information to stakeholders.
The disease is spread by feces, saliva, urine, cough-ing and sneezing. The pri-ons remain active in the environment a very long time, and can be spread from area to area by infected soil on tires. It also can be taken up from the soil into plants, and be spread by healthy animals consuming infected plants or by transporting infected hay into other areas than where it is grown. Any place where deer gather in numbers can be a transfer point for the disease, such as deer farms, deer baits, and even deer plots.
To prevent the further spread, he says hunters should
• stop moving deer
• dispose of carcasses appropriately and don’t allow discarded parts to end up on the landscape
• stop artificial congregation of deer
• address other potentially infectious agents
• test your deer for CWD to help create a better data set for researchers and to ensure that your family is not consuming meat from an infected deer
The number one priority is to manage the disease where it exists. He pointed to the ‘Earn a Buck’ program that existed from 2002-2008 as the best management tool the state had ever had to fight the spread of the disease. Beyond measures like that, or some sort of targeted, wholesale slaughter of the herd in an infection hotspot area, the other tools are to increase the harvest of bucks, particularly older bucks, and consider allowing hunting of bucks while they are in rut.“Given the tools available to us right now, your gun is the best management tool we have available,” Richards said. “We need more hunters in the field shooting more deer.”