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Don’t Want Deer and Wapiti Brains to Melt? Don’t Feed Them

South Dakota’s self-anointed Sportsman-in-Chief, Governor Kristi Noem, had better add deer and elk to her endangered money-making species list. The discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in a Clark County wapiti signals that may be wapiti and deer across the state may be at risk:

The new case in Clark County, located west of Watertown, was also the first time in more than 15 years that a deer or elk in one of the state’s 70 captive deer facilities had tested positive for the disease. How the elk caught the disease is still a mystery, but an investigation is ongoing, said state Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven.

Officials have not found any wild deer with CWD in Clark County. But the state has stepped up its monitoring for sick deer in the area and plans to notify deer hunters about the discovery before the next hunting season this fall [Nick Lowery, “Further Spread of Chronic Wasting Disease Alarms Hunters, Wildlife Officials,” South Dakota News Watch, 2019.05.21].

Bryan Richards, "Distribution of Chronic Wasting Disease in North America," USGS National Wildlife Health Center, updated May 2019.
Bryan Richards, “Distribution of Chronic Wasting Disease in North America,” USGS National Wildlife Health Center, updated May 2019.

CWD is caused not by viruses or bacteria but by prions, little misfolded proteins that can linger in the environment without a host for years before being picked up by deer or wapiti and triggering protein malfunctions that cause the brain to fall apart. CWD prions haven’t infected humans yet, but then neither had the prions that cause mad cow disease until an apparent mutation in the 1990s.

It sucks to have your brain melt. It would also suck to have CWD spread and scare hunters away from South Dakota’s needy economy:

In South Dakota, deer hunters spent more than $160 million in the state in 2016, according to an economic analysis by the state Game, Fish & Parks Department. About 70,000 South Dakotans hunt deer and drive an industry with about 3,900 jobs and $125 million in wages across the state [Lowery, 2019.05.21].

One good way to check the spread of CWD and protect critters, humans, and hunting revenue is to stop feeding deer and wapiti:

Don’t use animal attractants such as grain, other animal feed, or lures to concentrate animals for the purpose of improving your success hunting or observing animals. These and other wildlife feeding practices enhance the risk of transmitting CWD. Remember, CWD can be spread by, 1) animal to animal contact, 2) saliva, feces, and perhaps urine, 3) contaminated soil (presumably from the prions being shed via saliva and feces). So, it’s reasonable to assume that any factor that causes animals to come into contact with each other at a higher frequency, a higher density, and a prolonged period of time increases the probability that CWD will be transmitted. Also, since infectious prions can persist in the soil and can even be taken up by plants, continuing to concentrate animals in one spot only worsens the risk of spreading CWD. This may change the way you hunt, but CWD is indifferent to tradition [Bill Moritz and Matt Dunfee, “What Hunters Can Do to Stop Chronic Wasting Disease,” Wildlife Management Institute: Outdoor News Bulletin, December 2017].

Despite the gravity of the situation and the obvious science on CWD prevention, Game Fish & Parks wildlife program administrator Chad Switzer gets the impression South Dakotans won’t support a ban on feeding deer and wapiti:

What likely won’t get any attention is the well-intentioned feeding of wildlife, Switzer said. It’s a big problem, one that likely contributes to the spread of CWD but the backlash against banning or even severely limiting wildlife feeding could derail department efforts to build support for its work to slow the spread of CWD.

“Some would argue it’s more appropriate to work with the legislature first,” Switzer said of banning wildlife feeding [Lowery, 2019.05.21].

Consider the misguided folks in Eden who drew a big herd of deer to spend the last winter near their generous feed piles:

The whole town is talking about the deer that showed up after Thanksgiving.

“In the morning when you get up, there’s 40 or 50 of them lying on the streets in town. They’re just walking up and down by the gas station here, by the bank and the elevator. Kind of making themselves at home,” Danny said.

There are even more in the country where Lyle Michlitsch lives.

“Right in the trees, in the trees there,” Lyle Michlitsch said.

He estimates seeing 250 deer. One reason why they keep coming back is the winter has them searching for food and they know people in the area are leaving it for them.

“From my part, they got to live. I mean, they got to be fed. You know, you see them digging out in the snow. They’re digging. They’re looking for something to eat,” Lyle said [Brady Mallory, “Staggering Deer Population in Eden, SD,” KELO-TV, 2019.02.22].

Oh well. When the Governor herself builds a pheasant habitat initiative around Davy Crockett impulses instead of real science, we shouldn’t expect her administration to jump on scientific policies to protect deer and wapiti from disease.


  1. Donald Pay 2019-05-26

    People who feed deer are like antivaxers or climate change deniers. The science is clear, but they will ignore it. We had a governor in Wisconsin who ignored the science, and the disease spread from a small area to much of the state.

  2. leslie 2019-05-26

    I love the constant barrage on low educated kristi who deserves the critique. GOP SOP=elect a controllable dimwit. 80 traffic citations and cavorting on the great wall withcriminal congressman and sitting thru congrss on her fon should have told facebook republicans something. But NO!Constistently. Nationwide. :)

    Btw, fascinating stuff on prion spreading. Sounds like the bar on saturday night

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-26

    Don’t feed the animals—wildlife management experts have given us that message for years. Why are we not paying attention?

  4. Anne Beal 2019-05-26

    I have tried very hard not to feed deer but they keep showing up. I bought plants that were labeled “deer resistant” only to discover that deer don’t read labels or follow instructions. They eat Forsythia and Spruce. They eat roses and petunias. They eat the buds off Asiatic lilies. And while they will not go near Kale in the summer, in the winter they eat that, too. They eat everything. I have tried a variety of repellents and nothing works.
    How is it we are supposed to stop feeding them?

  5. JW 2019-05-26

    Not certain but the policy on captive herds that are found to have CWD is to extirpate all individuals within confinement. There is a period of time before the compound can be repopulated with captive animals. Captive Elk adjacent to Wind Cave National Park are thought to be the source for CWD in the Black Hills. After discovery, that herd was depopulated by the AIB and was never replaced. You did a pretty good job of covering the issue Corey. Captive wildlife is a significant problem for wildlife all across the nation.

  6. JW 2019-05-26

    If deer are hungry, there is no known deterrent short of a 6 foot fence that the animals can’t see through. If they can’t see where they are going to land when they jump, they won’t jump. Coyote Urine is readily available at Trapping supply houses and stores. It doesn’t work any better than wolf urine or even Mt. Lion.

  7. Debbo 2019-05-26

    In Minnesota if a captive herd gets CWD the herd is exterminated. People do feed the deer though. Boneheads, and I’m not talking about the deer.

  8. cibvet 2019-05-27

    People toss out corn,oats, pellets or whatever and the deer end up eating the dirt to get the last bite.Living in the soil are the prion and spores which kill the animal after it affects some of the other population. Again, the problem created by humans could be solved by humans if only they would listen to the GF&P instead of doing what they damm well please.

  9. jerry 2019-05-27

    trump looks like he has CWD as you can see by his visit to see Sumo wrestlers in Japan. He wanted to see kindred spirits of flesh moving and slapping each other around. The only thing missing from the Sumo wrestlers was the red tie.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-27

    Anne, I don’t hold it against you that deer come and try eating your plants. You are setting them out to feed the deer; the deer are just too dumb to leave them alone. If they come to pillage your plants and make themselves sick, that’s their own fault.

    The problem is laying out grain, acorns, or other fed specifically to sustain critters.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-27

    Robert and JW mention coyote pee, which reminds me that I once sprayed my baby trees with some noxious mixture meant to replicate that deterrent effect. I can’t recall what I mixed in my spray bottle… and I can’t recall whether it worked.

    JW, I assume the captive herds are a problem because of the concentration of critters and waste?

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-27

    Cibvet, you make an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of: the problem with laying feed on the ground is that the deer and wapiti are nibbling right on the ground and taking up whatever pathogens might be in the soil. When critters ear in the wild, their lips are up on stalks more of the time and don’t touch the ground as much, right?

  13. cibvet 2019-05-27

    Right Cory. Deer and elk are browsers in the wild so the probability of them eating soil is minimal. However if one animal gets the disease, all possibilities change.

  14. mike from iowa 2019-05-27

    Never heard of salt/mineral licks for ruminants?

  15. Robert McTaggart 2019-05-27

    Nicely manicured landscapes with well-cared-for plants and no predators around are apparently not sending a strong enough message to these deer to stay away…

  16. cibvet 2019-05-28

    I’ll take an educated guess for lack of a scientific study,but I think most prion do not inhabit natural salt licks and if a sick deer dribbled saliva on the lick, the prion would die quickly.

  17. mike from iowa 2019-05-28

    We used mb-PMCA to detect CWD in soil and water from mineral licks naturally contaminated with prions and used by free-ranging deer, livestock, and non-cervid wildlife species. Detection of prions in environmental reservoirs represents an important first step in understanding the contribution of environmental transmission to CWD epizootics and potential for cross-species transmission. The present study characterized an environmental prion reservoir by (1) identifying an apparent “hot spot” of deposition and potential exposure to both cervid and non-cervid species; (2) indicating CWD prions shed by free-ranging cervids are present in areas of frequent use leading to environmental contamination and potentially plant uptake; and (3) motivating investigation of the exposure and susceptibility of non-cervid species to CWD contaminated soil, water, and plant materials. Future research should be directed at quantifying CWD prion concentrations at mineral licks and other areas where cervids congregate, determining the persistence of prion infectivity at these sites, delineating spatial-temporal patterns of environmental prion deposition and accumulation, and assessing consumption by susceptible animals. Identifying additional environmental reservoirs of CWD prions and determining the contributions of direct and indirect transmission over the course of CWD outbreaks represent key aims in advancing unde

  18. Debbo 2019-05-28

    “potentially plant uptake”

    Yikes! Mike, if it can be spread through plants, deer and such are in even bigger trouble.

  19. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-29

    Robert, no one would ever mistake any yard I’ve tended for something “nicely manicured.” Those darn deer just wanted to eat my baby trees.

  20. jerry 2019-06-01

    Plastic is killing deer as well in Utah. “The Division of Wildlife Resources said Friday said officials found plastic bags and latex gloves in some of the deers’ remains but say the main culprit for their deaths was a harsh winter.”

    The powers to be will eat glass to not admit human causes for the catastrophe’s we are seeing.

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