CWD: A National Challenge, Not a ‘Boondoggle’
Critics and conspiracy theorists often claim that chronic wasting disease gives universities and wildlife agencies “bottomless kegs of cash” to fund “never-ending studies and programs.”
Unfortunately, they never back up their allegations with the beneficiaries’ names or budget specifics. Instead, they recite other one-size-fits-all accusations: “Follow the money!” “It’s a scam!” and “A bureaucrat’s dream-come-true.”
Some critics even chain their claims to yet another eternal conspiracy theory that’s just as false: “Wildlife agencies are in bed with the insurance industry to shoot off the herd to reduce deer-vehicle collisions.”
In reality, no entity in the government or private sector can simply crank out money for CWD research or management programs. CWD budgets have long been tight, and despite the disease’s continued growth and spread in the United States, CWD-specific funding from the federal government is lower now than it was a decade ago. Further, wildlife agencies receive little or no funding from their state’s general tax revenues to fight CWD.
Therefore, when states detect CWD, their wildlife agencies must divert funding and personnel from other hunting and fishing programs, which are funded almost exclusively by license sales and federal excise taxes from the Pittman-Robertson Act.
“CWD is the last thing any wildlife agency wants in their state,” said Bryan Richards, the emerging disease coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. “I can't imagine any agency director sitting in a budget meeting and saying, ‘Man, I can't wait till CWD comes to our state!’ Nothing today causes more challenges for a wildlife agency.”
No one at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries welcomed the disease when first detecting it in 2009 near its northwestern border with West Virginia. “I can say with confidence that there’s no financial benefit in being a CWD-positive state,” said Megan Kirchgessner, state wildlife veterinarian for the Virginia DGIF. “We’re getting hit from all angles, but we’re trying to be as smart with our resources as possible.”
Funding’s Highs and Lows
Congress initially provided steady funding for CWD efforts after Wisconsin documented the disease in February 2002, its first appearance east of the Mississippi River. From 2003 to 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided $152.9 million—an annual average of $16.99 million nationwide—to states for CWD research and programs. Those totals were divided fairly equally between programs overseeing the captive-cervid industry (elk/deer farms), and wildlife-related work by universities and agencies.
Things changed in 2012 when the USDA slashed CWD funding by 7-fold. “Congress discontinued that funding to USDA,” Richards said. “States have mostly been on their own to foot the bill ever since, mostly through license sales and P-R funding, but that hasn’t made up the difference.”
From 2012 through 2017, the USDA provided $12.12 million—an annual average of $2.4 million—for the states’ CWD efforts. In other words, the USDA provided more CWD funding each year from 2003 through 2011 than it provided in total from 2012 to 2016. Again, though, the annual funding was divided between the elk/deer industry and public elk/deer work by universities and wildlife agencies.
No state has been harder hit than Wisconsin, which has tested a nation-leading 246,321 deer for CWD since 1999, of which 6,585 (2.7%) tested positive. Most of those tests were conducted from 2002 through 2010, but of 19,347 deer tested in 2019, 1,334 (6.9%) tested positive. Several areas have prevalence rates higher than 50% for bucks age 2½ and older.
Wisconsin has spent roughly $55.5 million for research, testing and program management since 2002. CWD funding by its Department of Natural Resources averaged about $4.8 million annually from 2004 to 2007, before its state Legislature slashed funding by 52% to $2.8 million in 2008 and by 59% to $2.4 million in 2009 as politicians labeled CWD efforts a “boondoggle.”
After a new administration took over in 2010 and further slashed Wisconsin’s CWD funding, it averaged $1.14 million annually from 2012 to 2015, basically a fourth of its $4.8 million average from 2004 through 2007. Funding has averaged about $2 million annually since 2016.
Michigan, meanwhile, documented its first CWD case on a captive farm in 2008, and its first case in wild deer in 2015. Edward Golder, the Michigan DNR’s public information officer, said the agency has spent about $17.6 million for disease control since 2002, primarily on CWD. Golder said the agency views CWD as an unwelcome burden.
“In an age when hunter numbers—and, as a consequence, conservation funding—are challenged, CWD is an additional challenge we’ve had to confront,” Golder said. “We’ll continue to address CWD, but it always come at a cost (that occupies) a great deal of our time and resources.”
Golder said CWD forces agencies to shift priorities, and pull significant funding from programs for habitat management, public forest inventories, habitat work on state wildlife areas, and equipment purchases and maintenance work.
Each state’s financial resources get spread continually thinner as CWD expands its footprint. Tennessee first found CWD in December 2018 in two counties. Soon after, it verified CWD in an adjacent county, and within a mile of two other adjacent counties. After expanding surveillance efforts in 2019-20, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency verified CWD in five of six nearby “buffer counties.”
Eleven years after Virginia found its first case three miles from West Virginia, it has two CWD management areas. One covers four counties with a combined 86 cases; and the other covers seven counties with two total cases. Counties within 10 miles of a CWD case are included in a disease management area.
“Our CWD budget hasn’t been able to expand at the same rate as our CWD square-mileage,” Kirchgessner said. “We have to shift our priorities to the newer or ‘budding’ problem where the disease has not firmly established itself.”
Nick Pinizzotto, CEO/president of the National Deer Alliance, along with other NDA partners, sensed Congress might be more helpful during visits to Capitol Hill in 2019. The conservation groups didn’t get the appropriations they sought, but took some comfort in the $5 million allotted to the USGS, even though it was again split between public and private cervid interests.
But then COVID-19 arrived, killing whatever momentum the NDA helped generate a year ago. “It’s not like Congress was poised to fund everything we needed, but at least more people were understanding CWD is a real threat they can’t ignore,” Pinizzotto said.
Richards said CWD is also less mysterious in 2020 than it was in 2002, given what’s been learned the past 18 years. “We know what it looks like, how best to test for it, which tissues and body parts are most infective, how it moves great distances, and which human activities most advance it,” he said. “We can no longer say we have no answers. We know enough to change things for the better.”
Richards said science has identified deer-harvest strategies most likely to succeed. “We might not have perfect knowledge, but that’s true of nearly any disease known to man,” he said. “But we know which tools will most affect the disease, and we have science that supports their use. Unfortunately, some people don't find those tools acceptable.”
Richards sees no evidence that CWD is generating abundant funding for agencies and universities, but he said it clearly alters the careers of wildlife biologists across North America.
“You see people now nearing retirement who spent half of their career being railroaded by a disease they seldom thought about when they first went to work 30, 40 years ago,” Richards said. “And if you want to be a state-based resource professional today, you know CWD will likely be with you throughout your career.”