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CWD poses a real threat to deer and deer hunting

For decades, deer hunters and deer/elk farmers have been at odds about the origins of CWD and how/why it has spread. One thing is certain: The disease is prevalent in spots in southeastern Minnesota.

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Outdoors writer Eric Atherton arrowed this doe northeast of Rochester and is awaiting results of testing for chronic wasting disease. Contributed / Eric Atherton

The doe appeared right on schedule, a big-eared, long-necked whitetail that entered the valley about a half-hour before sunset.

I was in a blind, bow in hand, eager to put 40 pounds of venison into my freezer. A good-sized fawn soon trotted out and passed its mother, eager to get to a food plot and apple trees that this year have drawn deer like a magnet.

The fawn soon was in easy bow range, but the doe nibbled on an apple some 35 yards away. While she ate, I eyeballed her carefully. She was tall and long, but when she turned to look behind her, I could count her ribs, and her neck was thin, even for a doe. I decided that this was a deer I should remove from the herd.

She kept drifting my way and finally presented a broadside shot at close range. She didn't go 50 yards.

The doe seemed heavy enough as it into my pickup, but when arrived at my deer processor's shop, he took a look and said, “Hmm.” He speculated that she might have survived being hit by a car long ago. Then he rubbed a hand down her back and said, “Check this out. You can feel every bone in her spine.”

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He said she might be an old doe that was starting to decline, but then I asked the question that was hanging in the air: “Think I should have her tested for CWD?”

My happiness faded as I asked that question, and now I am in limbo. As I write this column, I don't know if my deer had CWD. I'll find out in four or five days, and until then I won't eat the meat.

Waiting and wondering

This is a new experience for me. Since the CWD outbreak in southeast Minnesota, I've not hunted near the so-called “hot zone,” and I haven't shot any deer during a time when testing was mandatory. Every deer I've taken in the past five years has been young, so I never really considered doing the optional testing. This time was different.

By an odd coincidence, that evening I read a letter to the editor on the Post-Bulletin's web site. The headline: “CWD not as bad as feared.”

The writer, Charly Seale, is a Texas resident who works for the Exotic Wildlife Association. He referred to a recent news article by longtime PB outdoors writer John Weiss, who explained that despite the presence of CWD in our region's deer herd and almost unlimited hunting opportunities, deer numbers continue to grow.

Therefore, Seale concludes: “This latest news adds to evidence from other states that CWD doesn't have a significant (if any) effect on deer populations. Hopefully, the sky-is-falling claims we hear about CWD will begin to die down.”

For context, I must point out that for decades, deer hunters and deer/elk farmers have been at odds about the origins of CWD and how/why it has spread. Personally, I accept the likelihood that the always-fatal neurological disease has been around for centuries, but I have little doubt that the artificial concentration of deer and elk on farms has greatly increased its prevalence, and I am certain that CWD's rapid spread across the nation is largely due to the sale and transport of live elk and deer, and from the escape of some these animals into the wild.

Seale disagrees, but apparently he doesn't even care about the source of CWD because it's not really a problem. His argument is that Minnesota and Wisconsin still have plenty of deer, so why worry? The deer herd is growing. Everything's fine, right?

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No, it's not fine.

Too many deer

In all of my reading about chronic wasting disease (and I've been writing about it for 20 years), I can't recall any credible expert who said the disease was going to wipe out the deer herd. CWD is a slow killer, and infected animals can live and breed for several years before they become symptomatic.

Ironically, the biggest threat CWD poses to deer isn't that it will decimate the herd; rather, it's that the deer population will soar to unmanageable levels, resulting in greater crop damage, more car-deer collisions and a herd that will exceed its food supply.

How might that happen?

While I know that a small percentage of deer hunters are solely concerned with antlers, most want the meat, too. Some, including me, care far more about venison than headgear.

Am I worried about CWD when I grill a steak? Well, I think about it more than I used to. I know that no human illnesses have been linked to the consumption of venison from a CWD-infected deer, but still, we are told that people shouldn't eat such meat, because the science on prion-caused diseases is incomplete at best. Uncertainty is uncomfortable.

Setting aside the health concerns, the logistics of getting a deer processed have become more cumbersome as CWD spreads. Not everyone butchers their own deer, and many of the small-town shops that once catered to hunters have stopped handling deer, in part because the rules for CWD testing, equipment sterilization and disposing of carcasses are just too much of a headache.

I'm convinced that the combination of mandatory CWD testing, concerns about venison safety and difficulty getting deer processed could ultimately cause a significant number of hunters to stop hunting or to shift their focus from meat to antlers.

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I'm not just speculating. Wisconsin sold 694,000 deer licenses in 2000. Two years later, CWD was found in the wild deer herd, and the Badger State is now the cautionary tale about how NOT to deal with CWD. In some parts of southern Wisconsin, 50 percent of mature bucks test positive for the disease – and statewide license sales are down a full 100,000.

Fewer deer hunters means fewer deer killed (especially does), and natural predators make almost no dent in the deer herd in our region. As hunting declines, one can easily picture a landscape with far too many deer. And that, of course, is the perfect environment for spreading CWD.

So to Charly Seale, I say the “sky-is-falling” scenario isn't one in which CWD wipes out the deer herd; rather, it's when hunters harvest fewer animals and the deer population explodes to the point that state employees have to do a lot of the shooting. Instead of producing billions of dollars in economic activity across the Midwest, deer would be be a financial liability.

In my book, that would be a very big deal, so the state of Minnesota should continue its all-out effort to halt the spread of CWD.

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