An emaciated 2-year old doe that died from chronic wasting disease this spring in the Eau Claire County town of Brunswick has state biologists wondering if it was an isolated case or if CWD is more common among deer in the region.
The state Department of Natural Resources is asking hunters heading out for the gun deer season to bring in animals shot in western Wisconsin for CWD testing or to deposit the heads of deer in 24-hour self-service kiosks. The deer heads will be analyzed for the fatal disease.
The annual nine-day gun deer season opens Saturday and runs through Sunday, Nov. 25, and state biologists say deer populations are in generally good shape statewide. In northern Wisconsin, four years ago 12 counties had bucks-only seasons to allow the deer herd to expand, with 10 counties holding bucks-only seasons three years ago. This year only Iron County has bucks-only restrictions.
Saturday’s opener is relatively early this year, causing hunters and biologists to hope the deer mating season, or rut, will still be in progress with natural daytime movement of deer.
Last year, the deer kill was down slightly in the farmland region of central and western Eau Claire County, said Dave Zielke, chairman of the Eau Claire County Deer Advisory Council, which sets deer quotas for the county.
Zielke, who plans to hunt opening weekend in southwestern Eau Claire County, is optimistic.
“This year I think they came through the winter good. It looked like they had a good fawn crop. They should be a little better than in recent years,” he said.
“But hunting is hunting,” he added. “There’s so many factors that can come into play — the weather, hunter density — but I’m looking forward to seeing deer at least.”
Zielke will be hunting not far from where the CWD-positive deer was found this spring and, if he shoots a deer, he plans to have it sampled by the DNR before eating any meat, both to help out with the DNR’s study in the area, and for health reasons.
“I’ll clean it up and package it and get it all labeled, but if the test comes back positive, I’ll throw it away,” he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control advises against eating venison from a deer with CWD.
Zielke notes there are no known cases of people getting a prion disease from eating venison, but he prefers to be cautious.
“They’ve never found it to transfer into humans, but I’d hate to be the first one,” he said.
Finding a CWD-positive deer in the town of Brunswick, far from other known cases of the disease, was a surprise, said Bill Hogseth, DNR wildlife biologist for Eau Claire and Chippewa County.
A landowner reported a sickly deer last March, and by the time a warden came out to look at it the following morning, it was dead. It tested positive for CWD.
The DNR had been monitoring deer in the Fairchild area for CWD because a captive deer herd there had CWD and a few animals had temporarily escaped before the entire herd was euthanized. But three years of sampling wild deer in the area has not found any positive tests.
The site where the Brunswick deer was recovered is over 30 miles from the Fairchild deer farm. The deer could have walked that far, but it’s unlikely, Hogseth said.
The deer had to be infected with CWD as a fawn because it takes about 18 months for the symptoms to show up.
This was the first wild deer to be found with CWD in Eau Claire County, and it caused a baiting and feeding ban not only in Eau Claire County, but in Chippewa, Dunn, Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties. Parts of all of these counties fell within a 10-mile radius of the CWD-positive deer.
Hogseth is hoping hunters will submit samples from all these counties.
“We want to know if this is a Washburn County situation or if this is the first deer of many that will test positive,” Hogseth said.
The Washburn County case he referred to was a CWD-positive deer found in 2011 near Shell Lake that appears to be an isolated case. But despite six years of testing, no additional cases have been found in Washburn or adjacent counties.
But the disease continues to spread in other areas of the state. In central Iowa County in southwestern Wisconsin, more than half the adult bucks and 31 percent of adult does now have CWD.
Phoning it in
“In this world of electronic registration, it’s more challenging for us to get samples,” Hogseth said.
A few years ago, when in-person registration was required for every deer shot, the DNR simply had to dispatch technicians to popular registration stations opening weekend to get samples. Now hunters register by phone or computer. Hogseth hopes hunters will be motivated to bring their deer into a DNR office for testing or to leave the head, along with contact information, in self-service kiosks that will be in the area.
Zielke said allowing hunters to phone in registrations makes it easier to misrepresent where they shot their deer, which makes the deer kill data less reliable. The deer advisory councils rely on the numbers in their counties when setting deer quotas.
Two years ago, when Chippewa County began charging for certain antlerless tags, there was an increase in several thousand more hunters indicating they would hunt in adjacent Eau Claire and Dunn counties where the tags were free. If those hunters shot does in Chippewa County but used tags designated for Eau Claire County, that would make their deer kill numbers less accurate, he said. Also, if more hunters are failing to register their deer at all, that also creates difficulties for management, Zielke said.
“It’s all done over the phone. It’s easy now for someone to do something like that — say they’ve harvested the deer someplace else,” he said.
However, the deer kill data for Eau Claire County did not show an increase over the last couple of years that might indicate a lot of deer shot in other counties were being phone registered as taken in Eau Claire County. “I haven’t seen a trend that would indicate a problem,” Zielke said.
The DNR estimates that 90 percent of gun hunters and 94 percent of archery/crossbow hunters registered their deer for 2017. “This level of compliance is estimated to be similar to compliance rates when in-person registration was required,” the DNR said on its webpage.
For the first time this year the cities of Eau Claire, Altoona, Chippewa Falls, the village of Lake Hallie, and some surrounding areas are all part of a metro unit. Metro units have liberal allocations of deer permits in an attempt to reduce high urban deer numbers.
In Eau Claire County hunters can receive three free antlerless permits for use in the metro zone. In Chippewa County antlerless permits are available for the metro zone, but they cost $12 for resident hunters.
Because of development, hunting with a bow or crossbow may be the only hunting method allowed in parts of the zone, but in some of the more rural areas in the zone, hunting with a firearm is allowed.
“It allows hunters more flexibility,” Hogseth said.