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


As a new administration attempts to balance the ecological impact of deer, the social and economic impact of deer hunting, and the potential dangers of chronic wasting disease (CWD), the second edition of the Nelson Issue Brief provides summaries of important deer-related research taking place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Map showing chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Wisconsin
This map shows the presence of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Wisconsin. View a larger version of this map

Deer hunting in Wisconsin is a long-standing cultural touchstone, with more than 470,000 gun-deer hunting licenses sold in 2018. Hunting also creates significant economic activity, as hunters spend more than $1 billion on hunting each year, often in rural parts of the state. Whitetail deer are the most ecologically significant wild grazing animal in the state, with a population of approximately 1.5 million animals, impacting ecosystems, farm crops, and highways.

Deer populations can completely change a local plant community, making their management key to any attempt at ecological restoration.

The emergence of CWD, a neurological disorder fatal to deer, in the state’s herd has complicated questions surrounding the management of deer hunting. A recent Marquette University poll showed that a majority of Wisconsin voters mistakenly think that CWD is not increasing in the state. While there are no known cases of transmission of CWD from deer to humans, there are still concerns about human consumption of meat from infected deer. The disease also limits deer populations and spreads rapidly in areas with high deer densities.

The state’s response to CWD’s emergence ignited a continuing controversy among the conservation community. Efforts to manage the population and the disease require engagement with multiple groups.

We hope these summaries connect researchers at the University engaged in world-class research with Wisconsinites that care about deer and deer hunting. Please reach out to the researchers highlighted in this report if you have further questions about their work.

Key points

Learn more about deer-related research at UW-Madison

Additional resources