Throughout most of the Great Lakes region,
there are huge numbers of white-tailed deer. Deer don’t have the natural predators that they once did… so states rely on hunters to manage the deer herds. Recently, that’s become even more important with the discovery of a fatal disease. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams reports there’s extra pressure on hunters to keep the disease from spreading:
Throughout most of the Midwest/Great Lakes region, there are huge numbers of
white-tailed deer. Deer don’t have the natural predators that they once did…
so states rely on hunters to manage the deer herds. Recently, that’s become even
more important with the discovery of a fatal disease. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Rebecca Williams reports there’s extra pressure on hunters to keep the disease from spreading:
“How are you today? Successful morning, or are these from yesterday? This
morning… oh okay…”
Hunters are bringing their deer into a check station. Department of Natural Resources staff
determine the age of the deer by looking at their teeth. If it’s an adult deer, a technician
saws the head off so brain tissue and lymph nodes can be tested for chronic wasting disease.
(sound of deer head being cut off)
Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, affects white-tailed deer, mule deer and elk. It’s always
fatal. So far, there’s no evidence that CWD can hurt people or livestock. For now, most wildlife
managers are just worried about the health of the deer herds.
Western states such as Colorado and Wyoming have been dealing with CWD for decades. Wisconsin
found the disease in wild deer in early 2002. Illinois found the disease later the same year.
So far, it hasn’t shown up in wild deer in neighboring states, such as Indiana, Michigan or
Wisconsin has a lot of deer crowded into a relatively small space, and that worries state
officials. Tami Ryan is a wildlife supervisor with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“Some of the genetic research that’s been done to date on Wisconsin deer, they are not
resistant to CWD. It could be severely detrimental to the herd, which is why we feel so
strongly about trying to contain the disease where it exists and prevent it from spreading.”
Wisconsin’s attempting what state officials call aggressive herd reduction. At first, the
state wanted to kill all the deer in the heart of the disease eradication zone. Now, the state
wants to kill five of every six deer in those zones. That means reducing the deer to fewer than
five per square mile.
The Department of Natural Resources is trying to do this by making hunting seasons longer
and handing out more permits. In the disease eradication zones, people can hunt on private
land all fall and all winter – September to March.
Many hunters say they like the opportunity to take a few extra deer. Mike Snodgrass hunts
regularly in one of the areas where the state’s trying to reduce the herd.
“From just being out and observing the deer, there’s a huge number of deer out in the woods.
I’ll do my part, I enjoy the venison, and so I’ll take a couple of does out, no problem.”
The Department of Natural Resources says hunter participation is crucial for controlling
chronic wasting disease. That’s because the state doesn’t have nearly enough wardens to kill
all those deer.
State officials worried at first that CWD would turn hunters off from the sport. But from some
recent surveys, it’s been clear that most hunters say they understand the problem and they still
want to hunt where they’ve hunted every year – whether or not there are sick animals in those
The state’s also reaching out to private landowners. Most of the land in the disease zones is
privately owned. The state’s encouraging landowners to open up their land to more hunters.
Mike Albert is a landowner who hunts. He owns 275 acres near where the first three infected
wild deer were found. Albert says he’s hesitant to open up his land to strangers, but he does
let friends and family hunt on his land. He says something has to be done about chronic wasting
disease, but he says he’s afraid the state’s going too far.
“It’s not that I don’t feel a responsibility to help. As an ethical hunter when you’re asked to
just blatantly shoot every deer you see no matter how, it’s hard to overcome that. They’re asking
us to totally devastate our herd, ruin our tradition, and do all this stuff before we know for
sure whether it’s the right thing to do.”
Albert says more of the effort should be focused on understanding the disease before acting.
Researchers are still asking many questions about the disease itself. It’s still not known
exactly how the disease is transmitted.
Beth Williams is a veterinarian at the University of Wyoming. She’s also a leading expert on
CWD. Williams says there aren’t any proven methods for stopping CWD. She says killing off
much of the deer herd is controversial, but the state’s options are limited.
“I think it was a good idea for Wisconsin to see whether or not taking fairly radical steps
like they have to do their herd reduction, whether or not that might stop CWD. The alternative
is, based on everything that we know, if you don’t try and do something, the disease is then
going to spread.”
Williams says it’ll be years before anyone can tell whether reducing the deer herds
will help. But many people agree chronic wasting disease needs to be stopped as soon
as possible, before it spreads to deer herds in neighboring states.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.