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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Finds CWD in Record 31 Counties During 2022 Deer Hunts

Wisconsin found chronic wasting disease in a record 31 counties during 2022’s deer seasons — including newcomers Buffalo, Langlade and Waupaca — but be assured state lawmakers stand resolute with band-aids and indifference.

At least Gov. Evers proposed some CWD funding in his 2023-25 state budget. He suggests allocating $1 million from the general fund for grants to buy deer-carcass disposal sites, $50,000 for CWD education for hunters, and $469,800 to hire six microbiologists for UW-Madison’s veterinary diagnostics laboratory to speed CWD testing results.

No one should sneer at $1.52 million from Wisconsin’s (say it with me) “hardworking taxpayers,” but the guv also suggests we pay $290 million of the $448 million in renovations (65%) needed the next 20 years for the Milwaukee Brewers’ American Family Field.

That’s a curious priority, given that deer hunting’s economic impact is roughly $1.5 billion annually in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, according to a study released in 2020 by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the Brewers had only a $2.5 billion impact on Wisconsin the previous two decades. In other words, deer hunting had 12 times the Brewers’ economic impact from 2000 to 2020.

Unfortunately, we’ll never see the GOP-dominated Legislature increase Evers’ CWD recommendation 12-fold. Neither political party has given white-tailed deer and recreational deer hunting much care or respect the past two decades. The best we can hope is for Republicans to leave Evers’ proposals intact.

Maybe lawmakers would take things more seriously if they knew how bad CWD has become here since they began ignoring it in 2014 through “passive management.” During our 2022 deer seasons, infection rates for hunter-killed deer hovered near 20% and higher in seven counties, namely Columbia (19.5%), Dane (20%), Iowa (28%), Sauk (26%), Richland (27%), Green (19%) and Lafayette (21%).

No longer can we take assurance from Deer Czar James Kroll that CWD is a “four-county problem” limited to Dane, Iowa, Sauk and Richland. When Kroll test-fired that dismissive description in 2016, and continues peddling it when speaking in other states, he conveniently forgets that Richland County wasn’t one of the “original four.” It had one CWD case in 2002, the year CWD was found in Wisconsin. In fact, it seemed a fluke until annual infections hit 11 in 2010, 18 in 2012, and then 66 in 2016. Richland’s CWD tally hit a state-high 375 last fall, from a state-high 1,390 tests.

The Department of Natural Resources has now found CWD in free-ranging deer in 41 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties (57%). Yes, that means 10 counties that previously found CWD did not find additional cases in 2022. But there’s no comfort in that, given that testing is voluntary, 70% of Wisconsin hunters have never submitted a deer for testing, and surveillance isn’t done systematically across the landscape.

Also recall that Richland County didn’t find one CWD case in 2003 or 2004, though hunters submitted a combined 3,008 deer those years. That was a lull before the storm. As of mid-February 2023, Richland County has documented 1,646 CWD cases from 18,327 tests (8.9%) historically. In this race for the bottom, Richland has overtaken Dane County, 1,572 cases from 33,565 tests (4.6%); and is closing fast on Sauk County, 1,700 cases from 21,211 tests (8%); but far behind pacesetting Iowa County, 4,127 cases from 52,328 tests (7.8%).

In other recent CWD news, researchers at the University of Calgary’s veterinary medicine school published a report in August stating that there’s an “actual risk” the prion disease can transmit to humans.

Sabine Gilch, an associate professor and Canada’s research chair in prion diseases at the university, said in a press release: “This is the first study to show the barrier for CWD prions to infect humans is not absolute, and that there is an actual risk that it can transmit to humans.” Prion diseases like CWD attack proteins in the brain, causing clumps to form, and eventually cause death.

The university’s press release notes that previous CWD research has studied hunters who consumed game in regions with high disease rates in the animals, and found no evidence of human infection.

In the U-Calgary study, laboratory mice developed CWD over a period of years and shed infectious prions in feces. The researchers concluded that CWD in humans might be contagious and transmit person to person.

The researchers also found that CWD might show up differently in humans than in animals and other human-specific prion diseases, making it difficult to diagnose with current methods for screening humans.

The study’s lead researcher, Samia Hannaoui, cautions that more research is required, because they haven’t proven animals can transfer CWD to humans. “We're far away from that,” Hannaoui said.

Researchers in the U.S. also haven’t reached that conclusion, and in recent years have used the word “robust” to describe the transmission barrier between humans and CWD-infected deer and elk. Even so, they don’t dismiss the possibility. That’s why wildlife agencies recommend hunters get their deer tested for CWD and not consume its venison if it tests positive.

Folks like Deer Czar Kroll, of course, think it’s “both unethical and irresponsible journalism” to report such scientific findings from publicly funded universities, and even claim it aids anti-hunting efforts. That criticism implies people shouldn’t hear information about ongoing research, and should trust those hoping to suppress it.

Kroll prefers to downplay CWD’s spread, much as he did in 2016 by reassuring us it had never been found in over 14 Wisconsin counties in a given year. He spoke too soon. CWD was found in 20 counties in 2017, 21 counties in 2018, 24 counties in 2019, 23 counties in 2020, 26 counties in 2021, 31 counties in 2022, and 41 counties overall.

If Evers and GOP leaders want Wisconsin to make an impact on CWD, they can start by forsaking Kroll’s “passive-management” failures and return the task to serious scientists.

Based on CWD testing of hunter-killed deer in 2022, disease rates are near or above 20% in seven Wisconsin counties (red), 10% to 19.4% in three counties (orange), 5% to 9.9% in five counties (yellow), less than 5% in 16 counties (light-green), and “not found” in 41 counties (dark green). — Buck photo by Snapshot Wisconsin

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