Humans are a strange species. We named ourselves Homo sapiens –  the “wise man.” But quite often we do dumb things. We have a long history of human activities spreading disease, pests, and invasive species around the world. But we don’t learn from our mistakes. Wisconsin’s handling of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in white tail deer is a case study. 

CWD is a serious disease that affects deer, moose, and elk. CWD is a spongiform encephalopathy disease related to mad cow disease, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. It is believed to be caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. Prions are not viruses or bacteria and can’t be controlled by normal medical techniques. This little understood pathogen can take years to develop but is always fatal. It was first discovered in captive mule deer in Wyoming in the 1960s and has spread to 23 states. It came to Wisconsin with imported stock for a game farm and the disease was first detected in 2002. CWD is spread through contact with bodily secretions or the prions persisting in contaminated soil.

Too often economic gain trumps all other considerations. Making money is paramount and any negative consequences are justified collateral damage. There are 376 deer farms and hunting ranches in Wisconsin. Many of them have high population densities in comparison to wild deer populations. CWD spreads easily in high density populations. It only takes a tree blowing down for farm raised deer to escape.

There are three game farms in Northern Wisconsin that have CWD infected deer. They are not being euthanized. CWD expert Bryan Richards of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Heath Center in Madison, has said the three game farms “constitute a real and significant threat to the integrity of northern Wisconsin’s deer herd.” The game farms high numbers of CWD infected deer pose an “ongoing risk of disease escaping into the wild.” (Green Bay Press Gazette).

Government regulations, of course, are not acceptable to the business community. Necessary, reasonable requirements to prevent accidents, mitigate unintended consequences and protect the public infringe on freedom and property rights. So it usually takes a disaster, epidemic, or crisis before safeguards can be enacted. Cities have to burn before we create building fire codes. In Wisconsin it takes an incurable, always fatal, disease to get closer scrutiny of the game farm industry. Inadequate fences, testing, and oversight of game farms led to CWD accidentally getting into the wild population. Now the disease is probably beyond control.  

Too often we have problems with accepting the advise of experts. From 2002 to 2006, the DNR took aggressive action on controlling the disease. They began an extensive testing program, banned feeding of deer, increased doe permits to reduce deer density, and began culling deer in affected areas. But this was unpopular with hunters. Public pressure scuttled much of this effort. Budget cuts, especially under Governor Walker, reduced DNR staff and funding for CWD testing. In 2002 the DNR tested over 40,000 deer all over the state. In 2017 it was down to 3,142 or 1% of the deer harvest. In Wisconsin the bar stool biologists knew better than real scientists.  

CWD is spreading north and is becoming more prevalent in affected areas. The Wisconsin DNR says there are now 53 CWD “affected” counties. The current geographic distribution is substantially larger than in 2002 and is increasing. Now the DNR says the disease is not likely to be completely eliminated. The problem is too widespread to be controlled. The opportunity to control CWD has been lost. 

Despite its unpopularity among hunters, localized culling can maintain low disease prevalence while minimizing impacts on recreational deer harvest. This is the conclusion of a 2013 study by the University of Illinois. Both Illinois and Wisconsin had similar control programs for CWD from 2002 to 2007. The study found both states had similar results. After 2007, Illinois continued an aggressive program including localized culling. CWD in Illinois remained low and stable at about 1.2%. In Wisconsin the number of diseased deer increased and spread to other areas. In 2016, the DNR tested 6,129 samples and 7% were positive. In Iowa County, near the site the disease was first discovered, the CWD positive rate of adult bucks is nearly 40% (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). 

Too often political pandering takes precedence over good policy. Governor Walker made deer numbers a political issue in the 2010 election. One of his first actions was to appoint a “deer czar” from the game farm industry in Texas. Years of budget cuts and staff reductions limited resources for the CWD effort. Now voluntary CWD testing produces insufficient data to accurately know the full extent of the problem. Journalist Ron Seely reports, “The DNR isn’t collecting enough data in a scientific way to allow it to make important management decisions.” (WisContext). After it is largely too late, Walker recently announced “emergency” rules on CWD. There will be tougher rules on deer farm fencing and transportation of live and dead deer. 

Hunters are in denial. In 2016, in the four most affected counties, only 10 percent of deer harvested were tested for CWD. Of those tested 17.5 percent had CWD. This means an estimated 3,537 untested, CWD infected deer will be unknowingly consumed by hunters and their families. A recent Canadian study using macaque monkeys indicates eating tainted venison can transmit the disease to primates. 

WisContext reporter Scott Gordon sums up the situation,       

“Over the years, DNR led efforts to monitor and manage CWD have seen a dramatic decline in testing, and have yet to provide a clear picture of how prevalent the disease is overall. Yet even limited data points to a growing problem — as the state tests fewer deer over time, it finds more and more animals infected with this always fatal disease. At the same time, evidence is mounting that CWD, caused by infectious proteins called prions, could jump the species barrier to humans.” 

When will we learn that our actions have consequences. When will we learn that “When the last tree Is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”