Creating a Convenient CWD Narrative Doesn’t Help

November 5, 2019 | by Nick Pinizzotto

Over the last couple of weeks, I attended and spoke at three public meetings about chronic wasting disease (CWD). Each meeting followed a similar format with a presentation at the outset followed by a question and answer period. A lot of the questions you get from sportsmen at these meetings can be predicted. How do I get my deer tested? What are the rules if I hunt in a CWD management zone? Can I eat a deer that has CWD? These are just a few that seem to come up at every meeting. What is also predictable is the few people who show up to offer their own solutions for dealing with the disease, or to poke holes in the state wildlife agency’s management plans.

The purpose of these public meetings is to educate and provide information while also giving sportsmen a chance to ask questions and have in-person dialogue with wildlife managers. Undoubtedly there will be differences in opinion and maybe even some frustrating and challenging conversations, but that’s healthy if it’s done with an open mind. State wildlife managers really do want to hear from sportsmen, and public input is one of the considerations when management actions are crafted. What isn’t helpful is when the misinformed or purposely uninformed show up with the sole intention of discrediting anyone and everyone who is working to control CWD.

At a recent public meeting in Pennsylvania a sportsman got his opportunity to ask a question of the speakers following the formal presentation. He rose from his seat, notebook in hand, and proceeded to challenge the math that had been presented earlier relating to CWD prevalence. The Game Commission’s goal is to keep CWD prevalence below 5% in established Disease Management Areas (DMA) and they explained how they hoped to achieve this goal with the help of hunters so that targeted removals by USDA would be unnecessary. To make a long story short, his math was inaccurate, and his frustration was evident when this was pointed out, ultimately contradicting his suggestion that nothing had to be done to thin deer herds in the DMA to slow the disease’s spread.

Others wanted to play Monday morning quarterback and place blame for not doing more sooner, and went as far as to blame specific individuals for CWD spreading in the state. One person was hoping for a “gotcha” moment when he accused the agency of not disclosing targeted removals done by USDA in recent years. A USDA representative was there and able to explain that USDA does targeted deer removals for many clients and the instances of removals referenced by the sportsman were not contracted by the Game Commission. As is the case in many other places in the country, removals are often done for municipalities, airports, and the U.S. government.

I’m sharing these examples not to pick on the individuals that asked the questions, but to point out that these and many questions and comments like them are purposely accusatory and serve no purpose when it comes to addressing the issue. I believe that most people aren’t really upset with their state wildlife agency but it’s having to deal with CWD at all is the root of their frustration. This is similar to how health professionals are sometimes treated when giving unfavorable news to patients and family members. It’s important to remember that the disease is the enemy, and unfortunately someone must give the bad news and be responsible for taking action. This makes state wildlife agencies easy targets for ridicule.

As I mention at every meeting I speak at about CWD, I’m also very frustrated. I am a lifelong passionate deer admirer and hunter, and I hate what this disease is doing to deer and hunting across the country. I happen to hunt on the border of a DMA and every time I see a deer, I can’t help but wonder if it’s healthy or not. Nobody I’ve talked to who has the fortune of working with deer as a career ever wanted to be dealing with CWD, yet it dominates our time and can sometimes put us at odds with other hunters.

I was archery hunting a couple of evenings ago and had the fortune of having a couple adult does walk directly beneath my stand. As much as I hate when that happens as a hunter because one false move will send them stomping and snorting through the woods, I love being up close and personal as it’s the ultimate observation experience. I could see their eyelashes and hear them breathing they were so close, and as exhilarating as that was, I was also sad about the challenges these and other deer are facing, which ironically is much scarier than the guy standing in the tree above them.

I shared that personal story to point out that we all love deer but share the misfortune of having to deal with CWD, whether you’re a wildlife professional or someone who is happy to get out hunting a few times per year. There are no hidden agendas, and none of us want to talk about it, let alone deal with it. There are no winners. Still, creating our own narratives and dancing around the best available science will do nothing to address the issue. CWD is a big problem, but it’s not the end of the world for deer and hunters. I urge you to become educated about the issue and consider what you can do to help wildlife mangers control the disease while researchers continue to learn more.