Hunters Surveyed Believe the Responsibility of CWD Management is Shared

July 17, 2018 | by Torin Miller

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is one of the most controversial and often-debated topics amid deer hunters. On one hand, it’s a relief that we’ve moved beyond debating what broadhead is most effective or what caliber is most accurate. On the other hand, controversy and separation surrounding an issue that penetrates so deeply into our deer hunting tradition is cause for concern. Hunters, despite sound scientific evidence or the lack thereof, will debate how CWD affects deer herds, how it should be managed, and who should be responsible for any CWD-centered management.

At the National Deer Alliance (NDA), CWD research and management is the top priority. Undoubtedly, it represents the single largest threat to wild deer and deer hunting, and arguably, our North American Model for Wildlife Conservation. As a result, understanding the science behind CWD is crucial. But, understanding the perceptions and knowledge of hunters, and the citizenry more generally, is equally important. So, as part of our weekly survey series, we decided to ask hunters about CWD management. Specifically, we wanted to know who hunters thought should be responsible for the management of CWD. Interestingly, opinions didn’t differ as much as one might expect.

The first question we asked focused on the nature of captive deer. A recent case heard by the Missouri Supreme Court focused on whether captive deer farms fell under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Conservation. The court unanimously ruled that in an effort to curb the spread of CWD, the Missouri Department of Conservation had the authority to regulate captive deer. Much of the debate centered on whether captive deer are considered wild or domestic. The court ruled that deer, even though captive, are wild animals under the jurisdiction of the Department of Conservation. As Judge Paul Wilson noted, “It makes no difference that said deer were raised in captivity, and had become tame. They are naturally wild.”

We wanted to know if our members agree with this statement. Fifty-four percent of respondents do agree with the judge’s ruling; 32% do not. The rest were unsure. While the division here isn’t terribly surprising, it does provide important insight. Particularly, respondents disagreed on the interpretation of the same principles. For instance, some respondents noted a significant distinction between deer and traditional domestic livestock, such as cattle or horses. One respondent noted, “A deer is a deer is a deer.” Other respondents noted that if deer raised entirely in a pen are considered wild, then livestock and pets should also be considered wild, with one respondent asking, “Does Fish and Wildlife have jurisdiction over pets now too?” The primary difference in responses turned on individual interpretation, rather than ideals, science, etc.

So why does it matter if captive deer are considered wild or domestic? Simply put, the definition of captive deer as wild or domestic determines which state or federal agency has an interest in their management. Again, which agency holds responsibility for captive deer management and regulation has implications for wild deer, too. Generally, wild animals fall under the jurisdiction of states’ fish and wildlife departments, while domestic animals would fall under the jurisdiction of states’ departments of agriculture. Of course, federal parallels exist, too. Unfortunately, the needs and goals of agriculture, and captive deer operations, don’t always align with management goals for wild deer. The primary concern around captive deer is the movement of animals to new locations. Notably, movement of deer, either dead or alive, is the fastest way to spread CWD into areas that were previously free of the disease. As a result, jurisdiction of captive deer can have a significant impact on the management of wild deer, and CWD.

While the responses regarding the definition of captive deer as wild or domestic were scattered, the responses to the next question shed some light on how hunters really feel. Our next question centered on who should be responsible for CWD management: state or federal fish and wildlife agencies, state or federal agricultural departments, or a combination of both. For instance, 43% of respondents feel that state wildlife agencies should be solely responsible for managing captive deer operations. For those who responded that state wildlife agencies should have this responsibility, most seemed to feel that states are best suited to manage captive deer within their borders. Some respondents took it a step further, noting that all captive deer operations should be banned: “For the best interest of public trust wildlife resources and the people, all captive cervid operations should be eliminated ASAP,” wrote one person.

But, nearly 34% of respondents felt a need for state and federal agencies to cooperate in the management of captive deer operations. One respondent opined that state agencies should regulate in-state activities, while federal agencies should regulate interstate commerce and transportation of captive deer. So, while opinions on the status of captive deer as wild or domestic vary, most respondents seem to agree that state agencies should take the lead on captive deer regulation and management with federal agencies providing assistance under certain circumstances.

Our final question produced results that might be a new record in the history of the NDA survey as 94% of hunters agreed upon something! What could 94% of hunters possibly agree upon? The answer is pretty encouraging. Ninety-four percent of respondents feel that hunters share the responsibility of not moving infectious deer parts from the area where the animal was harvested. The general sentiment was that “[w]e all have a responsibility as conservationists to protect and preserve our natural resources,” and that “[w]e all have a stake in combatting this deadly disease.” Additionally, many respondents stressed the need for more education and better information for hunters and lawmakers. For instance, many hunters questioned how one might know if the parts infectious or the deer itself was infected. Multiple respondents mentioned the need for an in-field test kit.

So, while hunters typically don’t agree on much, such as scent control, hunting the moon phases or the best way to prepare a backstrap, most seem to agree that CWD management is important. Specifically, most respondents believe that state agencies are best suited to manage captive deer operations, while federal agencies should cooperate under certain circumstances. Notably, jurisdiction within a state will often depend upon the state’s definition of captive deer as wild or domestic. It is encouraging that nearly all respondents feel that hunters share a significant portion of the responsibility for managing the spread of CWD. CWD spreads viscously with the movement of infected individuals and parts, and hunters understand that they need to do their part to limit this movement as much as possible.

Lastly, education and information are extremely important. Management decisions will become more and more effective as we learn more about the disease. Thus, it’s important to support organizations and agencies focused on protecting our wild deer and learning more about CWD.

Guest writer Torin Miller is a government affairs intern for National Deer Alliance. He has a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from the Pennsylvania State University where he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the same field, while also being a juris doctor candidate seeking a law degree with a specialization in environmental law.