Wasting disease worries leave deer hunters uneasy

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Soaked, shivering and successful, hunters during Michigan’s firearms deer opener lined up Wednesday to make sure their kills were healthy.

Temperatures in the 40s and lower slowed the hunt, Department of Natural Resources officials said, as an estimated 600,000 hunters sought their prizes.

This year is different, however. Wildlife managers are trying to get a better understanding of an infectious and always fatal white-tail illness, chronic wasting disease (CWD), which is expanding in west-central Michigan and threatening to decimate the state’s deer herd over years.

Wildlife experts say opening day rain slowed hunter success in many areas statewide, but a steady line of mostly pickups lined up at outside DNR check stations, sometimes spilling onto roads.

The hum of yellow reciprocating saws helping to remove deer heads to check infection, could be heard at check stations. They are destined for large black trash bags — four heads per bag — at the Montcalm Township check station. From there, state and outside experts reviews the results.

Efforts to contain the disease are in full force. Mandatory checks of deer killed in more than 1,600 square miles in lower central Michigan are in effect, among other state orders.

CWD infects whitetails in Michigan, the 20th state to identify the disease. It is caused by a deformed protein that eats holes in the brain. It is easily passed to other deer through direct contact or infected soil from feces, urine and other fluids.

Humans are advised not to eat infected venison, though contamination of humans is uncertain.

In the core disease zones, many hunters heeded a state mandate to have all deer tested, but others voluntarily checked deer from outside the areas of top concern.

The disease concerns left many successful hunters uneasy.

“The more you think about it, the more uncomfortable you feel about it,” said Chris McColley, 35, who brought his buck to Ionia and Montcalm counties’ Flat River State Game Area check station. The area covers 11,000 public acres near Belding in Montcalm County.

“It’s kind of a bummer, when you have to worry about testing it. It does take a shine off of it.”

Key DNR employees helped staff check stations. State veterinarian Kelly Straka worked in Morley; field operations manager John Niewoonder was at the Flat River State Game Area; Chad Stewart, the DNR’s point person for deer management, was at the Montcalm Township site.

Deer checks also are mandatory in areas where the disease was first identified in the greater Lansing area in 2015.

A complete map of chronic wasting zones, including locations and hours of check stations, is at

The disease is caused by a deformed, communicable protein. Symptoms include emaciation, lack of coordination and fear of humans and excessive drooling, drinking and urination. CWD can manifest in contagious deer for years without symptoms.

Concerns about the disease’s movement rose after a free-ranging deer, a 1.5-year-old buck, was identified in Montcalm County’s Sidney Township in late October. An infected 6-year-old pregnant doe was killed weeks earlier in neighboring Montcalm Township during the youth hunt.

Nine cases of infected deer have been identified in Ingham and Clinton counties in the past two years.