To help combat chronic wasting disease, Michigan is banning deer baiting and feeding across big parts of the state. It’s highly unpopular with some hunters and lawmakers.
But, banning bait will only slow CWD from spreading to new areas, and more aggressive approaches that might actually stop it could be just as unpopular.
Jarrad Novath is just packing away his rifle at a shooting range near his home in Kalkaska. He was sighting it in, getting ready for what he says is at least his tenth deer season.
Like many hunters in northern Michigan, he loves to use bait to lure deer. So he’s not thrilled about the deer baiting ban that went into effect in January.
“I particularly don’t care for it, but it ain’t gonna keep me from getting out in the woods," he says. "Yeah, no I’ll still be in the woods.”
Some hunters and lawmakers (and hunting celebrity Ted Nugent) say the ban will drive people out of the sport. They also question its effectiveness. Baiting bans haven’t gotten rid of chronic wasting disease in other states.
Chad Stewart, Deer, Elk and Moose Management specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says that’s not the point.
“So just because the disease is going to spread even with a baiting ban, that doesn't mean that the baiting ban is not helpful,” says Stewart. “Our department has never said that by banning baiting and feeding, it will reduce or eliminate CWD in the landscape.”
The ban can only slow down the spread of chronic wasting disease — a fatal neurological condition that affects deer, elk and moose. It works by reducing nose-to-nose contact among the animals, which should reduce the risk of disease transmission.
CWD is insidious. Once it’s well-established in an area it’s nearly impossible to get rid of. That’s because it can build up in the soil and live there for years. Some areas in southern Michigan are likely past the point of being able to eradicate the disease. But for places where it’s still new, there’s hope.
Doug Craven directs the Natural Resources Department for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
“There still may be a time, where, if you act quickly when you first get some disease like that into an area, that you can eradicate it, that you can get rid of it,” says Craven. Not control it, not contain it, not learn to live with it, but get rid of it.”
CWD has not yet been found in much of the area where Little Traverse Bay Bands citizens hunt. But Craven says his community eats a lot of venison. So for them, just slowing the spread of the disease is not enough.
Chronic wasting disease is not yet transmissible from deer to humans -- but it’s a possibility.
“We're not looking at from a perspective of what it can do to tourism-based hunting or different people coming to the state for hunting,” says Craven. “We're looking at what will potentially be the consequences of that disease on deer populations in general, but also what could potentially be a human threat.”
He wants the state to be aggressive. What might that look like?
An extreme example is the country of Norway, which exterminated an entire reindeer herd (about 2,000 animals) after it found three reindeer infected with CWD. Hunters took as many as possible, and then the government sent in sharpshooters.
Scientists believe the disease was likely only present for a short time (5-7 years), meaning they had a good chance of eradicating it. Results from monitoring afterwards are promising. But their approach wasn’t popular.
The state of Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Alberta tried similar things when they first discovered CWD. Brian Richards, a wildlife biologist with the US Geological Survey, says that without public support, those efforts backfired.
“In each of those cases, the protocol that they implemented to aggressively respond to disease, and try and protect the long-term integrity of that natural resource, were so unpopular that their respective legislatures literally yanked the funding out from underneath those aggressive protocols,” he says.
Richards says legislators and regulators have to balance disease management with what is publicly acceptable.
“Virtually every jurisdiction where chronic wasting disease has been detected, from a biological perspective, could they be doing more? The answer is yes,” he says. “Now you put that question in terms of ‘can they actually successfully implement more rigorous management protocols?’ and that's where you get into the sociological questions.”
Chad Stewart of the Michigan DNR says that’s part of the reason they haven’t tried things like eliminating all the deer from an area. He also says the deer are so thick in some parts of Michigan that it wouldn’t be possible.
But Stewart says they have removed hundreds of animals, sometimes using sharpshooters, at sites in Ingham and Jackson counties.
There, they had the support of local governments and landowners. In other locations, they’ve had to pull back because they’ve gotten resistance.
“If we can be successful at finding those early, working with hunters, or landowners to try to get those positive animals in that area off the landscape, we feel that we might be able to have some success trying to keep CWD confined to a fairly small geographic area.”
He admits there’s always more that can be done, but says that they can’t go too far, or they risk losing political and social support.
Doug Craven of the Little Traverse Bay Bands knows more aggressive CWD management would be hard for people and hunters in certain areas, but he wants people that value hunting to act to preserve it long-term.
“Maybe this current generation is gonna have to absorb a cost such that our future generations, you know, are able to receive that benefit,” he says.