Today is the firearm season opener for deer hunters. Several schools in our region have the day off, and a sizable chunk of our population will disappear into woods, blind and camp.
Hunters tend to leave the world behind and cover their tracks along the way. But there’s no camouflaging this season’s political twists amid the landscape of chronic wasting disease.
The Natural Resources Commission enacted a deer baiting and feeding ban in January 2019 (after the season) for the entire Lower Peninsula.
Predictably, calls and comments flooded in from concerned hunters; the NRC reaffirmed their decision seven months later, and hunters took a different route — the political path.
The House and Senate both approved overturning the ban — but the Senate’s tweaks need to go back to the House, and ultimately in front of the Governor. ‘Course the Legislature just broke for a three-week Thanksgiving and hunting break.
We are concerned by a few things:
1) the continual spread of CWD through our cervids (deer, elk, moose). The always-fatal disease is horror-show contagious and can be found in soil and plants long after the animals have gone. Since its first detection in a captive population in Michigan in 2015, the disease has since been found in 120 free-ranging deer, including one in the U.P.
2) the DNR’s response to CWD testing. We commend the Department of Natural Resources for testing tens of thousands of deer, at $125 a pop. But the testing is highly concentrated; in 2018 numbers, 26,526 of the deer tested were in the core surveillance areas in the 16 downstate counties, plus a portion of the Upper Peninsula. The rest of the state got 4,225 tests.
We feel like we’re chasing CWD instead of trying to get ahead of it, as clusters continue to surface in places we don’t expect. Much talk is devoted to deer movement’s role in spreading CWD. But the deer themselves continue to show us the folly of the ranges and “boundaries” wildlife biologists draw.
3) what we don’t know about CWD. We’ve noticed the conversation couching more from the steady reassurance that CWD is impossible to transmit to humans. Prion disease crossed the species barrier to a pig in a lab not too long ago. We also haven’t forgotten made cow disease (CWD’s cousin) — which posed no threat to humans, until three people died. It isn’t recommended to eat any part of an infected deer, and hunters in CWD areas are advised to debone the deer and destroy the bones, especially the spine.
What we’d like to see is a way to wrap our state arms around the scope of the problem, while encouraging our hunters to take aim at it, too. A baiting ban doesn’t do that, as it just seems to skim over a lot of other human-made attractants out there — including hostas, begonias and, oh yes, the deer urine used in hunting that is approved by the Archery Trade Association, which is legal.
The DNR runs on hunters — it sold 601,984 hunting and fishing licenses in 2018 alone, the bulk of which makes up the $83 million Game and Fish Protection Trust Fun that accounts for 20 percent of its budget.
Hunter numbers are dropping, when we likely need them most.
Last year hunters killed 367,652 deer.
That’s a lot of data.