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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

CWD Spreads as Critics Slam Crossbows, Protect Baiting

Judging by angry reader feedback and often poor cooperation for monitoring chronic wasting disease, it’s clear some Wisconsin hunters have bigger worries: curtailing the crossbow deer kill, and protecting deer baiting’s future.

That might defy logic, but if you read the headlines, letters to the editor, social-media posts, and grumpy emails to outdoor writers, you’d think crossbows are the state’s leading cause of deer deaths.

Reality check: As of Dec. 16, hunters had registered 319,719 deer during Wisconsin’s various archery and firearms seasons this fall, including 154,870 antlered bucks. Of those kills, crossbow hunters took 36,276 (23.4%) of the bucks, and 24,987 (15%) of the does and fawns. Those using compounds and other “vertical” bows killed 26,344 (17%) of the bucks and 18,568 (11%) of the antlerless deer.

In other words, arrows have taken 40% of Wisconsin’s total buck kill and slightly less than one-third of its total deer kill.

Meanwhile, the anti-crossbow folks keep complaining that crossbow hunters unfairly target bucks, noting that 59% of their deer so far carried antlers. If that’s excessive, they should also criticize compound-bow hunters because 58% of their kill is bucks.


You would think we’d all be proud that Wisconsin provides such great hunting recreation that arrows tally 33% of our annual deer kill. When I started hunting deer with a recurve bow and shotgun in 1971, bowhunters took only 8.5% of the total harvest, and bucks made up only 26% of the bow-kill.

Besides, no one is forced to use only a rifle, shotgun, crossbow or compound bow. Anyone who’s motivated could kill a deer with each weapon and start over again. So where’s the injustice?

And what about deer baiting? Going into autumn, baiting remained legal in only 20 Wisconsin counties: 12 in the northwest, seven in the east-central, and one—Ozaukee—in the southeast. Ozaukee lost its baiting privileges last week after an archer killed a CWD-infected buck less than 10 miles away in Washington County.

Where hunters can bait deer, they seem intent on stopping any potential threat to baiting. Specifically, deer baiters worry more about protecting their 2-gallon corn piles than monitoring CWD. After all, one positive CWD test in one corner of their county will end baiting across the county and 10 miles beyond.

That might explain rumors that bait-masters apply peer pressure to keep fellow hunters from testing their deer for CWD. Test data on the DNR’s website Dec. 16 suggest such rumors are true.

Consider: Each fall the DNR ramps up CWD surveillance in a planned rotation of counties outside southwestern Wisconsin’s core CWD region. This year’s rotation is targeting 27 counties for extra CWD surveillance, including 14 deer-baiting counties.

As of Dec. 16, hunters in those “go-bait” counties (Ashland, Bayfield, Brown, Calumet, Douglas, Door, Iron, Kewaunee, Outagamie, Manitowoc, Rusk, Sawyer, Taylor and Winnebago) provided an average of 74 CWD samples.

Meanwhile, hunters in the 13 “no-bait” counties (Barron, Fond du Lac, Forest, Green Lake, Langlade, Marinette, Marquette, Menominee, Oconto, Shawano, Sheboygan, Waupaca and Waushara) averaged 170 samples.

It’s possible that hunters in the go-bait counties didn’t get the DNR’s memo. Were hunters in the no-bait counties simply 2.3 times more alert? Probably not. Even if we drop the high and low outliers in go-bait counties (Douglas, 144; and Ashland, 20 samples) and no-bait counties (Marquette, 450, and Menominee, 14 samples) we still get a nearly 2-1 difference (159-81).

The DNR, of course, won’t complain publicly about the generally poor cooperation it receives when seeking CWD samples outside disease’s endemic region. In fact, it has even undercut hunters who tried helping. You’ll recall DNR brass abandoning the Chippewa Valley committee in October 2019 after initially agreeing to mandatory CWD testing for six townships near Eau Claire after six wild deer tested positive.

DNR Secretary Preston Cole sided instead with one ill-informed member of the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, Greg Kazmierski, who torpedoed the Chippewa Valley plan privately while staying quiet publicly.

And yes, Wisconsin’s CWD problem is worsening. We set yet another annual record last week, with the DNR reporting 1,377 cases as of Dec. 16. We set that mark despite 3,066 fewer tests: 16,307 so far in 2020, to 19,373 in all of 2019. The worst area, of course, is the DNR’s Southern Farmland Zone with 1,359 CWD cases from 7,804 hunter-produced samples, a 17.4% rate. That’s up from 11% in 2017, 12% in 2018, and 14% in 2019.

The DNR might be shy about praising specific efforts to help monitor CWD, but let’s hear it for Marquette County’s no-bait hunters, who have provided 450 samples so far this fall; and Shawano County, 310 samples; Waupaca, 215; and Sheboygan, 203.

It’s likely Marquette County hunters felt some added need to help, given that they had their first CWD case in 2018, and two more in 2019. The county also borders Columbia County to the south, where CWD is endemic. Columbia County has confirmed 60 (13%) CWD cases in 463 tests this fall, but so far Marquette County has found no new cases.

But let’s not risk shortchanging Marquette County’s hunters. Given worse circumstances, many hunters elsewhere refuse to get deer tested, fearing a test might reveal bad news and jumpy nerves. After all, people often react that way about their own health. A 2019 study of adults at risk of developing Huntington’s disease, a fatal disorder, found only 10 to 15% chose to learn if they inherited the gene.

And yet Marquette County leads the 27 counties targeted for increased CWD testing this year. Jeff Lang, a DNR wildlife technician, credits community involvement from taxidermists, a food pantry/deer donation program, a deer processor who encourages sampling, and the county’s deer advisory committee.

“It’s a group effort,” Lang said. “A few years ago, a lot of our hunters didn’t want to learn about CWD, but as we worked with them and showed them how we age deer and collect lymph nodes for sampling, more of them took interest and started bringing in deer.”

Now, if only we could get the Natural Resources Board to support and honor such efforts, instead of helping folks like Kazmierski scuttle the hunting public’s cooperation.

Many hunters decline to get their deer tested for chronic wasting disease, even as the disease spreads and worsens in southwestern Wisconsin’s endemic region.

Patrick Durkin photo

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