Much ink has been spilled about chronic wasting disease (CWD), which affects deer. CWD has slowly spread over the last few decades, and some hunters are worried it will decimate deer populations and a favorite outdoor pastime. Some have even questioned whether it is the end of hunting.
Yet there’s good news: A look at states that have had CWD for decades shows that the sky has not fallen at all. In fact, hunting opportunities are plentiful.
CWD worries hunters because it is tough to eradicate and there is no easy way to know if it’s in a given area. CWD is of the same family as mad cow disease, but it only affects deer, elk, and moose. There are no cases of CWD ever affecting people, and this type of disease typically does not cross the species barrier. (Humans have never gotten scrapie from sheep, despite raising them as livestock for centuries.)
In the 1960s, CWD was first found in the state at a university research facility in Colorado. It was then first detected in a free-ranging deer in the 1980s. And it has slowly spread around since — some by free-ranging deer and elk, and some inadvertently by hunters moving carcasses between states.
But the data shows the worries about CWD are overblown.
In Colorado, a representative from the state wildlife agency recently noted that “deer, elk and moose are stable.” Research has found that mule deer populations in the state have constantly fluctuated through history, with the severity of winter and the amount of summer precipitation being the most important influences on the animals. The agency is focused on having good habitat for deer and keeping predators in check.
In South Dakota, CWD was detected in a free-ranging deer in 2001. It doesn’t appear to have harmed hunting at all. State harvest data show that the deer harvest last year was essentially the same as 2001, and deer numbers are increasing.
The story is the same in Nebraska, where CWD was found in a free-ranging elk in 2001. The deer population went on to reach record numbers in 2010. In fact, it was too much deer for the land. Today, the numbers are down slightly, but the quality is good.
“The hunters are satisfied. The buck quality is high,” said a program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks. (Ironically, a disease that does not get much press attention— EHD, or epizootic hemorrhagic disease — was what killed off a chunk of the state deer population in 2012.)
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has seen the biggest political fight over CWD since it was found in 2002. Some activists are trying to shut down the state’s deer farms, which is an overreaction — farms are closed environments that test and control for CWD, but are innocent bystanders when the disease is spread to them by wildlife. And the free-ranging population is thriving despite CWD. According to DNR numbers, in the four most highly CWD-infected counties in Wisconsin the herd has almost doubled or has doubled in size since 2002.
Further, new data shows that hunting is on the uptick. Preliminary data shows the deer harvest is up 7 percent this year. The biggest increase is in the southern part of the state— where CWD was first detected.
Despite the doomsday predictions, deer hunting is still going strong. One hundred years ago, whitetail deer populations were much less than they are today in the United States due to overhunting. Smart management has helped boost their numbers incredibly since. But factors such as increases in predators (wolves, mountain lions, coyotes), drought, harsh winters, and human development play much more of a role — even if they don’t make headlines.
In the end, there is not much anyone can do about CWD any more than they can control how bad the winter will be. But given smart management policies that focus on providing good habitat for animals and keeping predators in check, hunting should continue to be plentiful for the foreseeable future.
Charly Seale is chairman of the media review committee for the American Cervid Alliance.