Nelson Issue Brief: Deer – Hunting, Ecology and Chronic Wasting Disease

How do Wisconsinites 'See' Chronic Wasting Disease?

Contact the authors

Josh Garoon, Assistant Professor, Community and Environmental Sociology, UW-Madison,

Nathan Shelton, PhD Student, Community and Environmental Sociology, UW–Madison,

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) presents a policy challenge as it spreads across Wisconsin because the disease is difficult to detect without laboratory testing. In addition, CWD persists for a long time in the landscape, and thus its consequences will likely outlast current hunters and policymakers. This difficulty of seeing CWD as part of everyday experiences makes it difficult for Wisconsinites to reach consensus on how to address the disease’s risks or even understand what it is.

CWD, therefore, needs to be made visible in ways that lead to proactive attitudes and planning rather than fear and anxiety. Sensationalist articles about “zombie deer” and a potential hunting apocalypse work counter to this aim. But current practices of engagement with hunters, land owners, deer farmers, and the public have not given us the political tools and vision we need, either.

Map showing deer farms and CWD management areas in Wisconsin

This map shows locations of deer management zones and deer farms in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has been remarkably successful at increasing its deer population, through both habitat restoration and hunting policy. However, in areas of deer overpopulation, the state has struggled to maintain or even selectively reduce herd size. Even increased hunting is not effective as hunters tend not to want lower deer populations, many still favor older bucks with larger antlers, some eat as much venison as they care to already, and overall the number of active hunters is declining.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) now organizes deer management at county-level units, rather than geographic areas of similar habitat. This move has increased the political importance of local activism around CWD, but it has also made it harder to coordinate regulation. We have been conducting interviews across Wisconsin to develop a picture of how CWD becomes visible to hunters, state officials, farmers, and other stakeholders in this context.

Harvesting an animal that appeared healthy but tested positive for CWD is a common experience for the hunters we interviewed. Even when their awareness was high, visibility was an ongoing problem. Hunters currently “see” CWD through four channels:

  1. Reading on their own
  2. Receiving scientific reporting from the County Deer Advisory Council in the county in which they hunt
  3. Submitting samples from harvested animals for CWD testing
  4. Being notified of baiting and other restrictions when their area comes under CWD regulation

In other words, interactions that “show” hunters CWD are almost entirely voluntarily — and those that aren’t keep CWD itself “invisible.” These interactions may limit hunters’ activities, or add undesired tasks to a day’s hunt, but do not address attitudes or provide proactive strategies to manage CWD. Deer farms represent a notable exception, as they are subject to a stricter regulatory regime. Deer depopulation is a very real possibility for them, and is especially visible to the public via news coverage.

All of these dynamics are critical to understanding how hunters, state representatives, and the general public will receive and respond to information about and policies on CWD.

Learn more about deer-related research at UW-Madison