CWD Update: What’s Happening to Deer?

Chronic Wasting Disease is no joke - and some bowhunters are worried. How could it affect our industry?
Photo Credit: John Hafner

Author: Cassie Scott

White-tailed deer are North America’s No. 1 big-game animal. In fact, research shows 83 percent of American hunters consider whitetails their game of choice. They pursue deer for adventure, lean meat, trophy potential and the fun of being with friends and family.

In addition, whitetails became the primary prey in recent years when introducing newcomers to hunting, causing small game’s popularity to fall. Likewise, whitetails generate more spending on bowhunting gear, and more sales of hunting licenses, than any other species. And all that spending generates funding for conservation work, whether directly through license sales or indirectly through federal excise taxes on ammo, firearms and archery equipment.

In other words, hunters, wildlife agencies and industry members all rely heavily on white-tailed deer for business and pleasure. We’ve put lots of eggs in one basket. That’s why, more than ever, people recognize chronic wasting disease as a threat to deer, deer hunting and the hunting industry itself.

Therefore, industry leaders are urging more research and surveillance on deer nationwide. They want to help biologists and other researchers better understand the disease, and possibly find ways to control or manage it.

“We need to be more aware of CWD and track it because there’s no question it affects deer management and the whole world of deer hunting,” said Jay McAninch, ATA’s president/CEO. “We have to be on top of it.”

About CWD

CWD is a contagious neurological disease that affects deer, elk and other cervids, and poses a serious threat to deer populations. The disease is caused by corrupt proteins called prions, which differ from viruses and bacteria. Photo Credit: John Hafner.

CWD is a contagious neurological disease that slowly kills every deer, elk or other cervid it infects, and poses a serious threat to deer populations. Therefore, it also threatens the bowhunting industry. Unlike viruses and bacteria, which cause most diseases, a corrupt protein called prions cause CWD. Prions are not living organisms, which means they can’t be “killed” by cooking meat at high temperatures. Prion-related diseases are 100 percent fatal and cannot be treated. Therefore, CWD is also causing worries about venison and whether it’s infected, even though there’s no evidence the disease can affect humans.

CWD Numbers on the Rise

The disease, originally detected in a Colorado captive mule deer population in the late 1960s, has now been found in 23 states and three Canadian providences. Photo Credit: John Hafner.

Patrick Durkin, a freelance magazine writer, syndicated newspaper columnist, and contributing editor/writer for, is well-versed in CWD efforts and effects. He said a big problem with CWD is a sustained lack of urgency.

“Deer don’t die between starched bed sheets,” Durkin said. “They die alone in the wild, and other wildlife picks them apart unnoticed. CWD is a silent killer, and spreads slowly across the landscape like a glacier. You don’t see its problems worsening year-to-year, but you look back 10 years and realize it’s gotten bad. CWD is here. It’s not going away. It’s tragic because it’s a subtle, relentless, slow-moving, always-fatal disease.”

In fact, CWD’s presence has steadily worsened since its initial discovery in a mule deer herd at a Colorado research facility in the late 1960s. It’s now been identified in 23 states and three Canadian provinces. And that’s just what has been verified. The disease likely remains undetected in other states.

Meanwhile, its frequency keeps increasing in many infected areas. In Wisconsin, for example, the Department of Natural Resources tested 24,818 deer in 2005, of which 181 (0.72 percent) tested positive for CWD. In 2016, the Wisconsin DNR tested only 6,127 deer, but 447 (7.3 percent) tested positive. Think of that: The state tested fewer deer, but found a record number of CWD cases. The disease is on the rise.

State Wildlife Agency Efforts

State wildlife agencies in states without CWD are laser-focused on keeping it out. Some also added laws and regulations against feeding or baiting, eliminated the use of urine products for hunting, or enacted other restrictions designed to lower risk of CWD introduction. Photo Credit: Haywood Community College.

Dan Forster, ATA’s director of government relations, said state wildlife agencies recognize the disease is widespread, and use two principal strategies to fight it: prevention and containment.

1. Wildlife agencies in states without CWD try to keep it out. Many adopt regulatory strategies like prohibiting people from moving live animals or certain deer/elk parts and carcasses across state boarders. Some states also forbid feeding or baiting wild cervids, and prohibit using urine-based scent products for hunting. Meanwhile, many state wildlife agencies share regulatory authority over captive cervids with the state departments of agriculture, and try to work together to reduce CWD risks in that industry. Most state agencies also test wild and captive animals to monitor CWD, but these efforts have been hampered by funding cutbacks.

2. Wildlife agencies in states with CWD apply similar prevention strategies, but also enforce more aggressive testing and control measures to slow CWD’s spread while managing the herd’s populations.

All states monitor wild herds for CWD, as well as population densities, age structure and sex ratios, but those efforts are also hampered by funding cutbacks. Meanwhile, much-needed research and surveillance efforts have been reduced or shelved.

Addressing Real Problems

“Our biggest concern is not CWD, it’s the lack of support for CWD research and surveillance,” stated Jay McAninch president/CEO of the Archery Trade Association. “We know CWD exists. We know what to do about it, we just need to get there. And, to get there, we need support, and funding for research and surveillance.” Photo Credit: John Hafner.

Meanwhile, three problems loom large: Society lacks the urgency to address CWD. Few hunters support aggressive CWD management. And state agencies and universities lack funding for testing and research. Therefore, CWD efforts have declined in recent years, despite its steady spread and heightened concerns nationwide. Even so, not everyone is willing to sit and watch.

“I’m concerned about all issues that affect bowhunting, because they can hurt our industry and the livelihood of many people,” McAninch said. “Our biggest concern is the lack of support for CWD research and surveillance. We know CWD exists. We know what to do about it. Now we just need to get there. But to get there, we need support, and funding for research and surveillance.”

The Solution

Scent manufacturers are encouraged the join the ATA and participate in the Deer Protection Program to take steps and follow procedures to reduce the potential of CWD infecting their deer herds. The ATA requests retailers sell only urine-based scent products marked with the ATA’s “Seal of Participation” label, a simple checkmark within the ATA logo. Photo Credit: John Hafner.

McAninch said it’s time to take action, and he suggests several ways to get involved.

1. Join the National Deer Alliance.

Everyone with a beating heart – hunters, ATA members, company executives, etc. – should join the National Deer Alliance, an organization that’s a guardian of wild deer, wildlife conservation and our hunting heritage. The NDA provides a unified front to address all threats to deer hunting, including CWD. With support, the NDA can provide financial help so state wildlife agencies can increase their research and surveillance efforts. That includes encouraging the federal government to provide more CWD-related funding.

Join the NDA here. Contact Jay McAninch at, or Nick Pinizzotto, president/CEO of NDA, at, to learn how to provide financial help.

2. Learn – and follow – state laws and regulations.

State hunting laws and regulations often change in efforts to reduce CWD’ spread. Industry representatives and ATA-member retailers must stay up to date on hunting regulations, and share that knowledge with bowhunters. Equipping hunters with gear and technology is important, but sending them into the woods knowing what they can and can’t do is more important.

“The last thing we want is naïve bowhunters to become violators, simply because they didn’t know the new rules,” McAninch said. “Retailers need to spread the word to keep hunters from making inadvertent mistakes that could bring criminal charges.”

3. Test your deer, elk and moose for CWD.

Bowhunters should get their deer tested, and not eat CWD-infected meat. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend not eating meat from CWD-infected animals. Although there’s no evidence CWD can be transmitted to humans, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Therefore, it’s wise to avoid the possibility. Bowhunters should also wear latex gloves while field dressing wild cervids and processing their meat.

4. Tell authorities CWD is a priority, and voice your concerns at public meetings.

Tell lawmakers, wildlife-agency leaders and other decision-makers that CWD is a high priority for deer hunters. State agencies use discretion on when, where and how to spend money. They can allocate money to support CWD surveillance, communication, research or management efforts. Make your voice heard. Help leaders realize that CWD needs significant support. Attend public meetings and engage in policy-making forums to ensure your opinions and priorities get heard.

5. Get involved with ATA’s Deer Protection Program.

Scent manufacturers should join the ATA and participate in the Deer Protection Program, which crafted procedures to reduce the potential of CWD to infect wild cervids. The ATA requests retailers sell only urine-based scent products marked with the ATA’s “Seal of Participation” label, which is a simple checkmark inside the ATA logo. The ATA also encourages retailers to inform customers about the program.

Final Thoughts

There is so much riding on the fate of whitetails, even controversial issues, people need to recognize the threat of CWD and act to ensure its health continues to spark emotion, drive conversations and help fund conservation projects. Photo Credit: John Hafner.

With so much riding on the fate of whitetails, people need to recognize CWD’s threats, and act to ensure the whitetail species continues to spark emotion, drive conversations and help fund conservation projects.

In a 2007 issue of Quality Whitetails magazine, Durkin wrote: “The white-tailed deer is admired and pursued by intelligent people with passionate beliefs and complicated values. But can it simultaneously be private property, brood stock and the living symbol of North America’s wildlife heritage?”

That question remains relevant. If bowhunters follow the rules, take precautions, and band together with archery-industry leaders, fellow hunters and nongovernment organizations, we can craft a cohesive strategy for addressing CWD. In turn, efforts to control and manage CWD will gain momentum. When that happens, we’ll ensure healthier cervid populations, and forge a stronger, more unified archery and bowhunting industry.

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