How will CWD Affect Bowhunting’s Future?

By Patrick DurkinOctober 8, 2015

Each September as Wisconsin’s bowhunting season nears, I reminisce how I once counted down the hours and crossed off the days on the 1971 calendar, wondering why my first archery-season opener was taking so long to arrive.

I couldn’t wait to tie my 43-pound Bear Grizzly re-curve bow to my bicycle’s crossbar, wedge my back quiver and its six cedar-shaft arrows into the bike’s over-sized newspaper baskets, and pedal into the rolling farmlands west of Madison.

Hunters can register their deer from the field starting this year, but getting their deer tested for CWD won’t be convenient.

Hunters can register their deer from the field starting this year, but getting their deer tested for CWD won’t be convenient.

Except for keeping a “short-timer” calendar in the Navy nine years later, I never again tracked a big day’s arrival so impatiently.

But as the archery opener neared in recent years, I became far more patient and less hurried. The season is long and generous, starting in shirt-sleeve temperatures and ending four months later in parka and pac-boot weather.

And if I didn’t know better, I’d have only hopeful, sentimental thoughts when wondering how many 15-year-old boys and girls awakened each morning in late August with nervous anticipation, one day closer to this year’s mid-September opener.

Instead, I wonder if they’ll have anything to anticipate in 2071 when they’re about my age. Will Wisconsin and its neighboring Great Lakes states still have a Bowhunting opener? Will we have a healthy, huntable deer herd? Or will we have a herd so stricken with chronic wasting disease that no one bothers hunting deer for meat?

If so, who or what will today’s teenagers blame as they mark their 60th birthdays?

Like it or not, the odds of a sickly Wisconsin deer herd in 2071 are looking more likely each year. CWD prevalence in southern Wisconsin has doubled across all ages in both sexes of deer the past 13 years. In at least one area, four of every 10 adult bucks carries the disease, and in at least two other areas one in four mature bucks are infected.

The number of bucks carrying chronic wasting disease is rising sharply in southwestern Wisconsin.

The number of bucks carrying chronic wasting disease is rising sharply in southwestern Wisconsin.

A year ago, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tested 5,460 deer for CWD, 80 percent fewer tests than it conducted in 2002. Even so, a record 6 percent of them (331) tested positive. The disease is spiking, just as biologists predicted it would do 10 years ago if we just stood and watched.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin lawmakers and DNR policymakers resolutely do little or nothing about it. The only year in which Wisconsin’s DNR conducted fewer CWD tests than in 2014 was 2011, when it collected 5,313. In fact, the four lowest years for CWD sampling have all been since the current administration took office in January 2011.

The group now in the state’s capital is far more diligent about reducing the collection of CWD data than reducing the disease itself. This year, the DNR’s goal is to collect 4,000 samples for CWD testing, or 25 percent below its record low four years ago.

First they abandoned efforts to control the disease’s spread. Then they quit trying to carefully monitor its spread and prevalence. And now they don’t even care that growing numbers of Wisconsinites are packing their freezers with untested venison from deer killed in the CWD-affected area—which covers 35 counties, roughly half the state.

Is that too harsh of an accusation? Well, consider that the state’s two large farmland deer zones – the central and southern – carry the bulk of Wisconsin’s deer herd. Compare that map with one showing the CWD-affected area, and it’s basically those same farm zones, give or take a few counties.

And consider this recommendation from the Wisconsin Division of Public Health: “Venison from deer harvested in CWD-affected areas (should) not be consumed or distributed to others until CWD test results on the source deer are known to be negative.”

This map from May shows CWD’s distribution in Canada and the United States.

This map from May shows CWD’s distribution in Canada and the United States.

And yet the DNR has so far equipped only about 20 of its 129 deer-registration stations to collect CWD samples from hunter-killed whitetails. How are hunters supposed to comply with the Health Division’s advice and assure their families they’re not eating CWD-tainted deer if they don’t have convenient access to venison testing?

Given what the agency emphasizes in its preseason forecasts for deer hunters, it’s clear Gov. Scott Walker’s DNR appointees don’t want to encourage hunters to get their deer tested. Nowhere in the DNR’s 68-page 2015 hunting forecast does it share the Health Division’s testing advice. Instead, the DNR makes the tests sound as if we’re asking where to check our truck’s tire pressure:
“Hunters interested in getting their deer tested for CWD will be able to go to one of the co-op CWD sample stations that will be posted on the DNR website prior to the season opener.” And that information wasn’t even in the section on CWD. It was buried deep in the general hunting preview for DNR’s Southern District.

Likewise, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp doesn’t acknowledge CWD’s shadow in her one-page message in the brochure. She does, however, say she’s “excited” about this year’s hunting forecast, and the “exciting” new electronic deer-registration system. She also likes the “exciting” news that the continent’s duck population is the highest on record since the waterfowl survey began in 1955.
I wish I could share Secretary Stepp’s excitement, but as we go bowhunting this fall, I wonder if Wisconsinites should start counting down the days of deer hunting itself.

Patrick Durkin
President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
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