Hype, Hoax or Harbinger – Is the Death of Deer Hunting on the Horizon?

Posted on March 12, 2019



My belief is the hunting rhetoric formed 120 years ago is dead. Nostalgia and tradition will fail the politics of today. And our youth have no real desire to carry on. – forum comment, Brooks Johnson, co-founder of Double Bull Archery and Northern Pondlife


Prior to January of 2002, few if any deer hunters this side of the Mississippi had heard of or much less cared about the little-known disease discovered in captive elk and deer, Chronic Wasting Disease. Dr. James Kroll explains the danger of misunderstanding it:

It has been asserted many times that CWD has the potential to destroy deer populations and deer hunting as we have known it! The sensationalist reaction by professional biologists and the media has managed to accomplish the latter! When CWD showed up in Wisconsin, three tabloids published articles saying that three men had died from eating venison tainted with CWD. That proved to not only be untrue, but patently false! That alone caused a 12 percent decline in deer hunters in Wisconsin, and they have never returned. It now is affecting deer hunting and harvest, with a decline of as much as 15 percent – all because of panic by agencies and biologists. If I wanted to destroy hunting in America, of which about 80 percent is deer hunting, I would convince hunters and the general public that one of the most healthy food items produced naturally in the deer woods was unwholesome and deadly! That would mean the end to deer hunting as we have known it; and it is my deep opinion that the whitetail deer will still be with us! And, the wholesale destruction of habitat caused by over-population would indeed lead to declines in deer numbers.


What is Chronic Wasting Disease?

According to the Wisconsin DNR, “Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a new disease threat to North American deer populations.” CWD is a brain disease related to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, also known as “Mad Cow Disease.” CWD affects elk, mule and white-tailed deer. It has been diagnosed in free-ranging deer and elk primary in Northeastern Colorado/Southeastern Wyoming and adjacent to Nebraska, but has been found in captive elk in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Saskatchewan and South Dakota as well.

Researchers are just beginning to understand CWD which appears to be caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. It can be spread by close contact between animals through saliva or feces and even forage or feed contaminated with the tissue of an infected animal. Usually, months to years pass from when the animal is infected to when it shows signs of disease. Classic CWD signs in deer and elk 18 months or older include poor body condition, tremors, stumbling, increased salivation, difficulty swallowing, and excessive thirst or urination. Currently there is no way to test a live animal for the disease. The brain from a recently dead animal is examined microscopically to determine infection.

The Hype

Unfortunately, as is the case when any little known or seemingly new phenomenon is brought to light, the media quickly sensationalizes all aspects of it and turns what they had attempted to be educational into a panic-driven circus. Place yourself in the boots of a Wisconsin deer hunter. Before January 2002, your deer-hunting world was safe and secure. Enough time has elapsed since the culmination of the fall 2001 deer season to have allowed you to reflect on the results of your hunt and begin planning towards next year’s strategy. And then suddenly, your deer world comes crashing down around you.

Arriving each successive month in your mailbox is a deluge of deer hunting periodicals with covers and articles that read of a deer apocalypse (CWD), a serious issue for hunters! Lost in the confusion and misinformation are the all-important facts surrounding the matter.


Paranoia sets in quickly as talk among local groups heats up wherever deer hunters gather. The non-hunting public is now engaged, polarized by the nightly broadcasts viewed on their televisions. Whichever way the Wisconsin DNR turns now, it is met with opposition on all sides based on the misinformation running rampant. The otherwise typically complacent Wisconsin huntsman now faces a chaotic, frustrating, and emotional tinderbox, with very real and perceived anxieties about his deer hunting future.
Calamitous as it may seem to the Wisconsin hunter, the sensationalism doesn’t stop there. The discovery and propagation of this news has reverberated throughout the deer hunting community and could indeed have dire consequences not only to deer hunters but people who make their living from deer, deer hunting products and related activities.Now, 17-years later we still find no cure, but instead face a resurgence of urgency regarding the disease.


“CWD is the perfect storm to erode trust in authorities and create a deeper divide,” says Brian Murphy, a certified wildlife biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association. “In this era of fake news and ‘alternative facts,’ there’s general hostility toward experts, and we’ve become conditioned to believe only the facts that fit our narrative. Besides, the science around CWD isn’t altogether clear. Add to the mix that government agencies are mandating changes in our behavior, and it’s easy to see how this can get twisted as a sinister plot.”


Murphy continues, “But we do know some things about CWD. We know it spreads from deer to deer. We know that it kills deer. We know we’d rather not have it.”

But here is the bigger question, how many certified wild deer deaths are the result of CWD?

The Facts

Behavioral studies of humans have proven that in a number of cases people only hear what seems important at the time, filtering out all other pertinent information. When reading, they tend to scan the words, never gaining the whole of any one piece. Despite however well laid out the factual documentation may be, some of the critical data will invariably become either misquoted or neglected.

CWD was initially discovered in a mule deer research facility located in Colorado back in 1967. Throughout the next twenty years, only a few random cases of animals dying as a result of this disease were found. For obvious reasons, the disease spreads more rapidly in areas harboring high deer densities. As an aside, this becomes yet another viable reason to keep a deer herd size in balance to the lands carrying capacity. Under those ideal conditions, everyone benefits. The deer are healthier, the habitat regenerates and the animals retain their elusive nature rather than being classified nuisance pests capable of destroying expensive ornamental landscapes.


In 1999, Wisconsin voluntarily began randomly testing harvested whitetails for CWD. Following the 2001 deer season, out of the 400 deer randomly tested statewide, three 2 ½ year-old bucks came up positive. All three were harvested by hunters within the same deer management unit. It is interesting to note, no whitetail in Wisconsin has exhibited any physical signs of being infected by this disease. Had the DNR not voluntarily begun this procedure three years prior to 2002 would we know today?

Follow the Money

Who stands to gain the most monetarily from this renewed enthusiasm for fighting this particular disease? Here are the stake holders: the hunting “industry” which depends on whitetails for about 80 percent of its business nationally, the sporting press that sells subscriptions and obtains advertisement dollars from the industry, and the deer farmers (high-fence operations) that charge big money to customers to come and shoot a buck, or sell breeding stock or straws of semen from outstanding bloodlines. And then there is the deer hunter who is the biggest consumer in all of the above products and services to some extent.

What are the Answers?

“Chronic wasting disease is the largest threat facing wild deer, but after two decades of fighting the disease, we still can’t agree on how to stop its spread.” writes Andrew McKean of Outdoor Life. He continues, “A proposed bill in Congress would provide $25 million to state and tribal wildlife agencies to help cover the cost of CWD monitoring in wild-cervid populations. But few supporters give it more than even odds of passing as Congress is gridlocked with larger legislation.”


There is no cure for CWD, which is always fatal. It kills its host by causing lesions to form in the brain. For now, it can’t be detected until its final, degenerative stages – and can’t be confirmed until the animal dies. So here is the next logical question: if science cannot keep up with the disease, is the best solution to kill deer in order to keep them from dying from CWD? Apparently, in Southeast Minnesota that is the decision. Currently, an all-out war has been declared on whitetails in Southeast Minnesota. Those in charge there obviously learned nothing from the Blue Mounds, Wisconsin debacle of 2002 that has to this day left hunters angry, cynical and ultimately distrustful of the Wisconsin DNR.


In a more subdued approach in south-central Pennsylvania, the Game Commission has sharpshooters taking out a portion of deer in a CWD impacted DMA, as documented on their press release: “At this time, 51 deer from the 2017-18 hunting seasons have tested positive for CWD. All have been within the DMAs. Forty-eight were within DMA 2, in south-central Pennsylvania; and three were within DMA 3 in north-central Pennsylvania. But the majority of samples collected still are being analyzed.”

Wayne Laroche, the Game Commission’s special assistant for CWD response, said the agency will continue to assess the incoming test results to evaluate the best response to confront CWD where it exists.
DMA boundaries regularly have been adjusted in relation to newly detected CWD-positive animals. Last year, the Game Commission teamed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a CWD surveillance effort where 30 deer were removed by sharpshooters and one CWD-positive deer was detected among them.

“By developing a control program where we go into these hotspots and remove the animals with a greater likelihood of carrying the disease, we might stand our best chance of controlling CWD on a larger scale, while minimizing the impact on the larger deer population or diminishing deer hunting opportunities,” Laroche said.

CWD is not a new disease, and other states have decades of experience dealing with CWD in the wild. It first was detected in Pennsylvania in 2012 at a captive deer facility, and it was detected in free-ranging deer soon after. To date in Pennsylvania, CWD has been detected in 98 free-range deer.

Let us be clear, nobody has any concrete evidence that this disease has not always existed amongst the deer family. In states that are not currently testing, there is no guarantee that the disease does not already exist. Additionally, the percentage of infected animals versus otherwise healthy ones is small in comparison. And, of course, there is no guarantee that attempting to cull off every deer within the surveillance area will eliminate or even quarantine the disease.

How is it that I can be so subjective with regards to this matter, you may query? Well, let’s look at a human example of a communicable and incurable disease. Despite lengthy, expensive and ongoing research, we have yet to find a cure to cancer. Much time and effort has been devoted to researching a remedy for HIV, yet, to no avail. Because of our failure to find a cure, do we then eliminate any and all that have the misfortune to contract these diseases? Of course not. Medical professionals administer the best possible care to the patient in an attempt to ease their suffering and prolong their existence while providing some semblance of a quality life. But does that change the fact that the patient will ultimately expire due to the disease? Again, the answer is obvious.


With that in mind, should our frightened response to a relatively unknown and marginally researched disease be to annihilate an entire herd of animals, place unrealistic restrictions on deer propagators – perhaps shut them all down – and in the process create hysteria within the whole deer hunting community?

To those questions I do not have an answer. I am not a trained biologist, nor do I have any medical or disease research credentials. What I am aware of is whitetails, as well as all animals, are not immune to maladies and are routinely plagued with them much like humans. The difference being that they have no way to verbally communicate their illness, it must be observed through uncharacteristic behavior.



Man has been granted the stewardship role over the animal kingdom ever since its creation. With the advancement of today’s technology and the innovative minds within the science community, surely a method facilitating biologists too have the ability to test live animals should be the first logical step. In the process, defining the root cause of this illness and hopefully finding a cure would be next. At the very least, because of this process, preventive measures will be founded to aid in combating future outbreaks and help quell unfounded fears. We need to continue asking questions and listening to answers rather than making demands, for without the whitetail there will be no deer hunting and we may well be ultimately responsible for the Death of Deer Hunting.


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer