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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

CWD Burnout Threatens all Outdoor Recreation

Overheard in the men’s room while attending the 43rd annual Southeast Deer Study Group meeting in late February at Alabama’s Auburn University:

“I’m done listening to CWD talks. I’m going up to my room to practice my presentation for tomorrow. I’ve heard enough CWD talks the last three years to last a lifetime.”

The speaker was in his early 20s, likely a Ph.D. candidate from a Southern university, and studying some aspect of white-tailed deer biology. He likely aspires to work for a state wildlife agency or a private-lands operation.

Smirking, I glanced up from the sink and dried my hands.


I eased away without comment, feeling every bit the reporter who’s covered infinite CWD meetings, briefings and conferences for 18 years. I was roughly 20 years into my career when Wisconsin confirmed chronic wasting disease in February 2002. The college guy was likely in preschool at the time.

I recognized the young man a day later as he presented his findings to roughly 300 academicians, graduate students, and wildlife managers. He was poised. He didn’t squander his practice from the previous afternoon.

He advanced science, but his research didn’t involve CWD. Good for him. Who wants to study something that bores?

I hope he cherishes his research, and never forgets the 20 minutes of insight he shared Feb. 25, 2020. But if he pursues a deer career, or any agency work, that talk will likely be one of his last on his chosen topic.

Instead, he’ll likely spend the next three to four decades dealing with CWD’s frustrations and grunt work. On good days, he’ll prepare, practice and deliver PowerPoint talks about the always fatal prion disease.

On bad days, he’ll don goggles, surgical garb, and rubber boots, wield a scalpel, and stand for hours at a steel table, cutting lymph nodes from severed deer heads. His back will ache, his feet will swell, and his wrists will risk carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s a task you could teach temp-workers, but there’s no money for outside help, so shut up about overtrained/inefficient labor, and snap on those latex gloves, junior.

He’ll get no sympathy from peers and predecessors. Many of them are now retiring after spending half of their careers mired in a disease they couldn’t ignore or deny as if it were climate change, the early days of coronavirus, or football-induced chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Still, I hope that bright student stays in the profession and embraces its drudgery. Deer hunting, wildlife management, and underfunded agencies need him and many others who know too well CWD’s dull, endless challenges.

Maybe he can help coax CWD-deniers toward reality—despite its ambiguities—and away from ignorant demagogues. He knows it’s better to trust the learnt uncertainties of science than the raving faith of halfwits. Method trumps madness, no matter how glacial its advance.

I hope he wasn’t snoozing earlier that day when Nick Pinizzotto, CEO of the National Deer Alliance, told attendees CWD is now the norm, but they can’t abandon ship. They know deer and deer hunting’s histories. Both survived previous challenges. Between subsistence hunting, market hunting, and near-continental deforestation, our forebears nearly wiped out America’s wildlife 120 years ago.

But then younger forebears restored them.

“CWD is not the end of the world,” Pinizzotto said. “It’s our opportunity. To have any chance of success, we need the vision to engage hunters and win their trust. It won’t be easy. We’ll always have naysayers, those who tell people only what they want to hear. But they won’t solve this problem. Yes, we have biology on our side, but that doesn’t matter if we don’t win the people and keep hunters on our side.”

Without hunters—especially deer hunters—wildlife agencies, the hunting industry and wildlife-science programs have little or no self-sustaining funding sources. That’s why CWD’s risks and challenges push beyond deer and elk.

A report on hunting, fishing and wildlife watching by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated over 103 million Americans—40% of us—participated in fishing, hunting or other wildlife-based recreation in 2016. In doing so, we spent at least $157 billion on fees, gear, licenses and travel. That’s nearly 1% of our gross domestic product, and it creates and supports thousands of jobs.

But because only hunting and fishing systematically tax and license participants to fund fish and wildlife programs, we can easily forecast a tailspin: The more hunters we lose, and the more their license-sales and gear purchases sag, the greater percentage of money CWD programs vacuum away. That means agencies and universities will devote even less to turtles, warblers, butterflies, human-dimensions and endangered resources, which could again eventually include deer.

Meanwhile, CWD’s footprint widens and deepens. Wisconsin tested 19,157 wild deer the past 12 months, and verified CWD in 1,329 (6.9%). That total and its percentage are records. CWD has been found in wild deer in 30 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Just 10 years ago we tested 7,440 wild deer, found CWD in 219 (2.9%), and verified it in 10 counties.

Wisconsin isn’t alone. Surveys by the Quality Deer Management Association reported 32 states tested 59,046 deer in 2008, while 41 states tested 175,478 deer in 2018. Those states found CWD in a combined 80 counties in 2008, and 300-plus counties in 2018.

Tennessee didn’t find its first CWD case until December 2018. In the 15 months since, further testing and mandatory check stations revealed 10.7% prevalence in its two-county core zone, and less than 1% prevalence in five of six surrounding counties.

And CWD is affecting hunting. Arkansas first found CWD in February 2016, and has since confirmed it in 13 counties. Bryan Richards, the emerging disease coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey’s national wildlife health center in Madison, told SEDSG attendees that Arkansas identified a sure way to lose hunters.

“Arkansas’ hunters largely support agency regulations,” Richards said. “But the hunters Arkansas is losing are those who killed two, three or four CWD-positive deer. That’s when the ‘ick factor’ makes them reconsider things.”

Let’s hope our up-and-coming wildlife professionals have greater tolerance. They’ll need it, and we need them.

Chronic wasting disease, and the drudgery of testing dead deer to monitor its spread and presence, is tasking hunters’ patience while threatening money for wildlife management. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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