Almost every deer hunter and wildlife agency in North America is coping with the shock waves that jolted Wisconsin one year ago when chronic wasting disease was discovered west of Madison.

That’s the consensus of deer biologists and university researchers who gathered in Chattanooga, Tenn., earlier this week during the 26th annual Southeast Deer Study Group meeting. When Wisconsin became the first state east of the Mississippi River to discover CWD on Feb. 28, 2002, it set off such widespread alarm that most states collected brain stems and/or lymph nodes from deer and elk for testing during last fall’s hunting seasons.

The biologists and researchers at the Chattanooga meeting also reported that fear and confusion about human health issues caused declines in license sales and hunter motivation in states far from Wisconsin.

The disease also curbed elk reintroduction programs in states like Kentucky, which had brought in 1,500 elk from western states in recent years. Kentucky’s elk herd exceeds 2,300 animals but the state ended further elk imports.

Other states feel pain, too

Jon Gassett of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates his state also lost 8 percent of its deer hunting license sales in 2002 because of CWD’s appearance in Wisconsin.

He said 1 percent declines are common, but based on concerns he heard, he must assume Wisconsin’s outbreak caused the larger decline. In Wisconsin, deer license sales dropped about 10 percent last year for gun-hunting and about 13 percent for bow-hunting.

“I think we learned last year that CWD has impacts far beyond the realm of other wildlife diseases,” Gassett said.

Although Kentucky conducted extensive disease tests on elk it imported for its restoration program, Gassett concedes there is no way to be certain one of them didn’t bring along CWD.

“Until recently, there have been no CWD tests you can administer to live animals,” he reminded the crowd. “So, we’ve shut down further imports.”

Mickey Hellickson, a Ph.D. researcher at the King Ranch in Texas, said tests have not found CWD in his state, but he won’t be surprised if ongoing tests reveal it. Hellickson said Texas is testing about 1,200 deer shot last fall, and none of the first 900 has tested positive. The state plans to test at least 2,500 more next fall.

“Nothing has turned up yet, but it wasn’t until CWD turned up in Wisconsin that Texas tightened its regulations for importing animals or trapping and moving wildlife within the state,” Hellickson said. “Texas has a long history of high fences, captive facilities and moving animals around, so I won’t be surprised if we find it.”

The right way to go?

When asked if Wisconsin was taking the right approach with eradication efforts, the scientists gave cautious replies. Gassett said Wisconsin is doing the only thing possible given the circumstances, but he doubts eradication is possible on free-ranging whitetails.

Randy Davidson, a wildlife disease researcher at the University of Georgia, said although it’s true much is yet to be learned about CWD, science knows more than enough to justify actions already taken.

“We know enough about transmissible diseases to realize we must not artificially concentrate wildlife,” he said. “That’s why states can’t allow baiting and feeding. I also don’t buy into this myth that the disease has always been here. We can’t continue to move animals in and out of all these unregulated private game farms and then act as if that had nothing to do with the disease spreading.”