Sidney — Robert MacDonald gestures south with his right hand, past his property to where a sick deer was killed.
A hunter came to his door days earlier, warning neighbors.
“He said, ‘Something was wrong with my deer. I took it in, and it had the disease,’” said MacDonald, 70, of Sidney in Montcalm County.
There is a black cloud on the horizon as an estimated 600,000 deer hunters ready their guns for Michigan’s firearms opener on Wednesday. Chronic wasting disease is infecting the state’s white-tailed deer, threatening a $2.3 billion hunting industry.
And when the history of Michigan deer hunting is next written, this Montcalm County location — where a yearling buck was shot by an archer amid farm fields and acres of oak and maple — could be important.
It suggests the always-fatal disease is on the move — or has been moving, and we’re just learning it, wildlife experts say.
“I don’t think you can print the words that ran through my head,” said Chad Stewart, Department of Natural Resources deer specialist. “The long-term impact is that it leads to population declines that are essentially irreversible.”
The under-the-radar location –— kept secret by the DNR for privacy and other reasons — was confirmed by three area residents and one law enforcement officer.
The hot site is just six miles from where a 3.5-year-old doe with the disease was identified just 18 days earlier.
Also of concern, the heads of two infected 3-year-old does were identified in neighboring Mecosta County earlier in the year, submitted by a fenced-in hunting ranch near Morley. The DNR is investigating if the deer were actually killed outside the ranch.
Michigan’s prevalence of the disease is still miniscule, less than one in 1,000 white-tails tested positive, according to the DNR. But the discovery of new cases, 60 miles from an earlier cluster in the greater Lansing area, raises critical questions of how the disease might be contained, and how it will impact hunting statewide.
Chronic wasting disease is caused by a deformed, self-multiplying form of protein, a prion that eats holes in the brain. Symptoms include emaciation, lack of coordination or fear of humans, and excessive drooling, drinking and urination. The disease can manifest in contagious deer for years without symptoms.
Michigan’s first case was identified in a fenced, northern Kent County breeding facility in 2008. The first infected free-ranging deer was found in 2015 wandering a subdivision in Ingham County’s Meridian Township, about 10 miles from the state Capitol.
“It’s a very serious issue, currently and into the future,” said Josh Halyard, regional director of the Quality Deer Management Association in Michigan and Indiana. The organization advocates restraint in taking young bucks. The disease can be fatal to trophies before they reach prime size.
“This is just not something that can be dealt with quickly. It’s going to take time, a lot of time, and you don’t see results until you’re down the road,” Halyard said.
In response to concerns about the spread of the disease, mandatory deer testing is expanding in the state, extending from nine to 20 townships around Lansing since 2015 to 18 more townships in west-central Michigan — 1,360 square miles.
Parts of Mecosta, Montcalm and Kent counties are now under constraints similar to those in the past two years in five other counties: Ingham, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee and Eaton counties.
Anyone who kills a buck or doe in the core zones must bring the animal to one of 12 DNR check stations within 72 hours. The head will be removed, piled with others, and the brain and lymph nodes tested for chronic wasting disease.
Hunters in the new zones also are being encouraged not to use bait, so as not to congregate deer. Baiting and feeding there will be illegal starting Jan. 2.
Thinning the herd
Infected deer pass the disease through contact (licking, touching noses, giving birth, mating) and indirect contact. Soil infected by the disease — through deer urine, feces, carcasses — can remain toxic to white-tails for more than a decade.
One effort to contain the disease is to thin the herd in affected areas.
“The fewer the deer, the slower the spread,” state wildlife veterinarian Kelly Straka said.
Beyond bait bans and mandatory checks, other measures include disease control permits for property owners with at least five acres; no antler restriction on combination (double) licenses; and sharpshooters can be deployed, as has happened in the Lansing-area chronic wasting disease zone. Most deer identified in that area were taken by sharpshooters.
Erik Schnell, president of the Quality Deer Management Association’s Michigan chapter, says his organization supports measures to contain the disease, but balance is important.
He fears mandatory testing, curbs on baiting and feeding, suggested removal of field-dressings and general uncertainty over a deer’s health could dampen enthusiasm.
“There’s already been a decline in hunting, and now add CWD into it,” Schnell said. “That adds a fear element into what has always in the past been a joyous movement.
“If you make it a hassle, they won’t hunt, and if you don’t have enough hunters to address the problem, how do you stop it?”
Stopped in its tracks
The challenge facing Michigan wildlife officials: How best to arrest the disease’s spread before Michigan joins Wisconsin, Arkansas and Wyoming, where the pace of the disease has accelerated.
There is no known case of a human being infected from eating sickened meat. The DNR follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in recommending the meat not be eaten.
But Straka, the DNR wildlife veterinarian, cited an unsettling study by the University of Calgary that found chronic wasting disease can be ingested in macaque monkeys, which mimic human biology, from tainted meat. That study is still under review, she cautioned.
Chronic wasting disease is also not to be confused with deadly epizootic hemorrhagic disease, which is caused by an insect and kills like wildfire. It causes short-term herd damage. Chronic wasting disease, with its long-term ability to devastate, is considered much worse.
In Wyoming, the mule deer population plunged by half. In Arkansas last year, an estimated one out of three white-tailed bucks was infected, and one out of five does.
And in Wisconsin, the disease in bucks rose from 8-10 percent to more than 30 percent over 15 years; in does from at best 4 percent to nearly 15 percent.
The Upper Peninsula is not safe. An infected deer has been identified 30 miles from the Upper Peninsula’s western border, according to the DNR, closer than lower Michigan’s two free-ranging clusters.
Where illegal, baiting and failing to register deer are misdemeanors, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. DNR officers are hoping for compliance, not enforcement, Stewart said.
The Village Market in Sheridan, a farming community two miles east of where the latest disease case was identified, processes deer for venison roasts, steaks, burgers, jerky and more.
“We just got 27 this morning,” night manager JoAnne Bailey said one afternoon last month. “They’re not afraid to shoot them.”
Bailey says she can process six deer an hour, at $60 each. More than 500 deer will be processed by the season’s end, she estimated. A number of heads had been removed this year, suggesting early archers voluntarily had them tested, she said.
“It’s such a mystery. They don’t know (what causes the disease),” she said. “They could be throughout the state. We don’t even know.”
A complete map of chronic wasting zones, including locations and hours of check stations, is at mi.gov/cwd.