Deer disease keeps worsening in Wisconsin, as predicted

Patrick Durkin, the Waupaca-based outdoor writer, had some fun with a recent state Department of Natural Resources press release regarding chronic wasting disease.

The release documenting the unmitigated spread of the always-fatal brain disease among deer, was titled: “Disease sampling results provide current snapshot of CWD in Wisconsin.” Durkin, in a column, jokingly suggested a comparable headline for a report on the sinking Titanic: “Damage-control party assesses condition of ship’s hull.”

Though fewer deer are being tested, the incidence of the disease is up. In the 2014 season, which ended March 31, more than 6 percent of the roughly 5,400 deer tested were positive, a DNR tally shows. That’s an all-time high disease rate; as recently as 2008, it was below 2 percent.

For March 31, 2015 column

More alarming still, the disease rate among adult male deer has reached 40 percent in north-central Iowa County and around 25 percent in two other sectors. And CWD is no longer found only in southern Wisconsin.

Tami Ryan, the DNR’s wildlife health section chief, calls these numbers “not a good news scenario” but also not unexpected, given that the state is no longer attempting to manage the disease but is instead just monitoring its distribution and prevalence. Earlier attempts to employ more aggressive strategies were abandoned amid intense public opposition.

Now, 13 years after CWD was first discovered in Wisconsin, Ryan says many hunters “just want things to go back to normal.”

That’s not likely to happen. A far more plausible scenario is that the disease will continue to spread, infecting and killing deer, until the number of animals available for hunters is seriously depleted. And then, look out.

“The research we’ve done shows the disease is in an accelerating pace,” says Mike Samuel, a UW-Madison associate professor of wildlife ecology who studies CWD. “It’s going to continue to rise at a rapid pace and it’s going to continue to spread until the people decide we’ve had enough.”

And while Samuel sees no way to get rid of CWD, using currently available strategies, he thinks it can be controlled through management practices. He suggests killing more bucks, among whom the infection rate is highest, perhaps by opening the gun hunting season earlier, when deer rut (mate).

But this, Samuel notes, is when bow hunters do their thing, and they are a powerful lobby group. Past CWD-eradication strategies seen as detrimental to herd size drew opposition from hunters and were axed by lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker. And Walker’s so-called “deer czar” recommended a more passive approach to CWD.

“We have a lot of ways to manage the disease that are politically unpopular,” Samuel says.

Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with the national Consumers Union who has long tracked the spread of CWD and related diseases, is appalled by what’s happening in Wisconsin.

“That’s horrendous news,” he says of the most recent numbers. “Do they not care about an epidemic that is sweeping the state? The science doesn’t matter to them?”

Hansen says the “proper response is to try and get rid of the epidemic, rather than just give up and let it sweep through.” Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before “you’ve got such high rates that populations begin to crash.”

Dave Clausen, a veterinarian who formerly served on the state’s Natural Resources Board, shares this concern. “The current policy is inconsistent with a long-term healthy deer herd,” he says, diplomatically. What is happening now is exactly what he warned the DNR two years ago would happen, absent an aggressive response: “CWD will continue to spread across the state and will increase in prevalence where it is established.”

Now retired, Clausen calls the state’s willingness to essentially let this happen “a political decision, not a scientific one.” If the scientists are right, and Wisconsin’s deer hunt is devastated, will politicians get the blame?