CWD Forecast Grim

Posted by Patrick Durkin on August 20, 2013 in Conservation, Legislation
Clausen, cwd, ATA Dave Clausen of Amery, a former member and chairman of the state’s Natural Resources Board, addresses the Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association at its annual conference July 27 in Eagle River. Photo: Patrick Durkin
When Wisconsin veterinarian David Clausen thinks of hunters who shrug off CWD and simply demand a larger deer herd, he invokes the late Southern author Flannery O’Connor: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

Wisconsin veterinarian David Clausen served nearly seven years on the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Clausen’s term expired May 1 and – much as he has done since he took his seat on the Board in 2006 – Clausen warned that Wisconsin’s approach to chronic wasting disease has been too passive since 2005.

That’s in stark contrast to what the state’s “deer trustee,” Dr. James Kroll of Texas, wrote in July 2012 in his final report to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Kroll said reported increases in CWD prevalence in southern Wisconsin were caused by sampling bias, and recommended a more “passive” response to CWD where the disease is well-established. Kroll, however, also recommended more aggressive sampling to assess the disease’s prevalence when new cases are found outside CWD’s endemic areas.

When Clausen addressed the Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association at its annual meeting in Eagle River, Wis., on July 27, he said he respects Dr. Kroll, but said “he’s flat wrong” about CWD sampling bias. Clausen said “robust” data from CWD tests on hunter-harvested deer show exponential increases in CWD since 2008 in large areas. He thinks it’s dangerous to allow the herd in infected areas to keep growing, and providing an ever-increasing pool of sick deer to spread the always-fatal disease.

Therefore, when the Amery, Wis., veterinarian thinks of hunters who shrug off CWD and simply demand a larger deer herd, he invokes the late Southern author Flannery O’Connor: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

Clausen added: “Just because we love deer hunting, and deer have significant social and economic value in Wisconsin, CWD will do what CWD does. It will expand geographically and intensify in prevalence. It isn’t being stopped by barriers like rivers or major highways, so it certainly won’t honor political boundaries with neighboring states. It doesn’t matter if we approve or not, or if we find it inconvenient to our interests. Eventually, CWD will reduce deer populations, and probably cause broader ecological, landscape-wide consequences, not only in Wisconsin, but our neighboring states.”

In follow-up interviews with the Archery Trade Association, Clausen addressed several questions about CWD. Here’s an edited transcript of that Q&A:

ATA: When CWD was found in Wisconsin in 2002, the nation’s top biologists predicted the impacts of CWD on deer populations and hunting traditions would likely develop over decades, but warned that CWD control efforts would affect hunting traditions quickly. Are those assumptions still accurate?

Clausen: “They’re accurate only where CWD hasn’t been found. About the only protection against CWD is to keep deer populations low and under control. If you have high concentrations of deer and CWD gets into that herd, Wisconsin proved things can get scary much faster than people – and wildlife agencies – care to admit. No hunting tradition can last long once CWD starts spreading the way it is now in parts of Wisconsin.

“In 2002, Wisconsin’s CWD concentrations were mostly in Iowa and Dane counties, with singles in Sauk, Richland and Walworth counties. Today, 18 Wisconsin counties are infected. We’re seeing unprecedented disease spread in a 122-square mile area in Iowa County. In 2002, about three-tenths of 1 percent deer in that area had CWD. This past fall it was at 26 percent; one in every four deer tested. For males 2½ and older, the infection rate is climbing 22.8 percent a year. For females 2½ and older, the infection rate is climbing 36.4 percent a year. I don’t know about you, but increases like those sound scary to me.”

ATA: What will CWD’s status in Eastern states be in 10 years?

Clausen: “That’s tough to say because the rate at which CWD spreads can vary wildly, and we’re not sure why. We might not be able to stop it from spreading, but we can slow it. We need to increase restrictions on (deer and elk) farms, reduce wild herds significantly, conduct targeted removal of deer in known CWD areas, and ban baiting and feeding of deer and elk nationwide. Unfortunately, those are unpopular ideas with little chance of getting passed in Congress or any state Legislature.

“But consider this: There is not one example – anywhere – demonstrating  that CWD’s prevalence curve will plateau. None. So, I hate to say it, but this will get ugly. Minus a magic potion, CWD will spread statewide and intensify in prevalence everywhere it’s established. Wisconsin’s current policy does little or nothing to influence its spread; and the kinder, gentler approach Dr. Kroll recommends will do even less. I fear it will make things worse.”

ATA: “Many Wisconsin hunters remain unconcerned about CWD, even as tests show a growing problem. If anything, the most vocal hunters want even more deer, and don’t believe CWD will hurt the population. Can CWD reduce deer populations?”

Clausen: “Yes. There’s no doubt we’ll see smaller herds with a younger age structure as the disease worsens. That’s because the deer’s average lifespan will start decreasing as the disease spreads. With deer living shorter lives, you’ll see fewer deer on the land. Wyoming is documenting smaller mule deer herds in its CWD-endemic areas, and Colorado has documented smaller herds in its endemic areas.

“CWD will hurt the herd’s quality, too. In Midwestern and Eastern states, hunters who manage their properties for mature, trophy bucks will see bucks dying before they reach their prime antler-growing years. I liken it to Dutch Elm disease, but even that’s not as deadly as CWD. We still see elm trees in Wisconsin, but few of them live beyond 30 years. We no longer see big, majestic elms lining our streets. Old elms are long gone. We’ll probably see something similar with CWD. We’ll see fewer deer and very few older deer.”

ATA: “If you could create more bowhunting opportunities in this era of CWD, what would you promote?”

Clausen: “I see great opportunities for bowhunters to combat CWD and increase public awareness. It’s imperative that we reduce the size of our deer herds. This isn’t just about controlling overbrowsing to improve deer habitat anymore. It’s about slowing CWD’s spread. Some of the most difficult areas to control deer numbers are our urban and suburban areas. We need more programs encouraging people to give bowhunters access to those high concentrations of deer, get their numbers down while the herd is disease-free, and make them less susceptible before it’s too late.

“When Wisconsin still had earn-a-buck requirements, bowhunters were very effective at removing antlerless deer. They were doing their part. We need to enlist their help again if we’re going to slow this disease. There’s no way we’re going to stop it if these big urban deer herds become CWD reservoirs.”

ATA: You’ve criticized the Wisconsin DNR for its “passive” approach to CWD the past eight years, yet you’ve also said it’s not following the policy it originally crafted. Please explain.

Clausen: “The DNR’s CWD policy of 2002 didn’t fail. The DNR didn’t get a chance to carry out that program. Until about 2006, CWD didn’t increase much in southern Wisconsin. Is it just coincidence that CWD’s flat years corresponded with the years the department did sharpshooting, targeted removal and aggressive herd management with hunters? That’s strictly a coincidence?

“The fact is, the Legislature gutted the DNR’s ability to control CWD, and it crippled the DNR’s ability to monitor the disease’s spread. We’re sampling a lot fewer deer now (5,000) than in 2006 (20,000). The DNR was testing about 13,000 to 20,000 southern Wisconsin deer for CWD annually from 2002 to 2006. Lawmakers slashed the funding, and the DNR tested only 7,000 deer annually from 2007 to 2010. We’ve been stuck at 5,000 the past three years, even though the disease is worse than ever. If we had kept sampling 20,000 deer annually, there’d be a whole lot more dots on our CWD prevalence map than there are today, and we’d have a much better idea of its prevalence and location.”

ATA: Even with fewer tests, the DNR found CWD in four counties outside Wisconsin’s endemic areas in 2012, and in another county early this year. How do you respond to naysayers who think these are flukes?

Clausen: “It’s unlikely the new CWD cases in Adams, Juneau, Portage, Waukesha and Washburn counties are flukes. In 2002, Richland County tested 636 deer and found one CWD case. Hunters there thought it was (a fluke). They didn’t want to be included in CWD management. In 2012, the DNR tested 592 deer in Richland County and found 18 CWD cases. That’s 44 fewer tests to find 18 times more sick deer. The anomaly would be if these so-called ‘sparks’ weren’t occurring and multiplying. That would differ from how CWD has behaved everywhere else it’s found.”

ATA: The DNR’s critics, including some lawmakers, accused the agency of wasting money on CWD. They claim we got little from the $32 million spent the past 10 years or so. Was that money wasted?

Clausen: “No. That’s an unfair, incomplete accusation. Most of the money went to testing deer for hunters while monitoring CWD’s presence. The state tested about 178,000 deer the past 11 years for about $100 a test. That’s about $17.8 million. A lot of research and knowledge came from that. The world knows a lot more about CWD today than in 2001 because of those tests. If CWD gets away from us and keeps spreading, it won’t be the DNR that failed. It will be the people of Wisconsin. But you can’t push rules people don’t want enforced on themselves.”

ATA: Should Wisconsin invest in efforts to find CWD vaccines?

Clausen: “That’s a long journey. Some very talented and well-financed researchers have spent years trying to develop an AIDS vaccination, but it’s still not here. Researchers are working with far less money to find CWD antibodies. But let’s say they succeed several years from now. Wisconsin will likely have 2 million deer very soon. A vaccine must immunize a large percentage of that population. That would be a huge, expensive challenge, and it’s not a one-time undertaking. The DNR’s current CWD budget is at its lowest point in the disease’s history. I see problems there.”

ATA: It seems people have become complacent about CWD. Should they be more concerned?

Clausen: Hunter/landowner attitudes have changed. It’s hard to get them to even look at charts and prevalence maps. Their attitudes probably won’t change unless they start seeing sick deer where they hunt. Then again, that picture could change dramatically if CWD prions are ever shown to threaten agriculture, human health, or our food chain or drinking water. If that happens, I think it will be the end of deer hunting as recreation. That’s what I really worry about. The government won’t stand idle if CWD threatens agriculture and our food supply.”

News page photo and hero photo: Patrick Durkin