As deer season starts, Michigan fights deer disease

LANSING—The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced at the start of firearms deer season that it is taking several steps to fight chronic wasting disease, which threatens the state’s deer, moose, elk and cattle populations.

For CWD, the DNR and partners including Michigan State University, have designated funding, resources and personnel to stop the spread of CWD while emerging as a national leader in disease testing, research and management.

CWD is a contagious, fatal disease among the deer, elk and moose (cervid species). The affliction is caused by a normal protein, called a “prion,” that folds incorrectly. Misfolded prions cause a degeneration of the brain, resulting in emaciated deer, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death. There is no cure for this animal disease. And while there is no evidence of the disease spreading to humans, there are national and international advisories against eating the meat of infected animals.

Last year alone, the DNR tested more than 40,000 deer heads for CWD, about 25 percent of all samples tested in the entire United States. Since testing began, 133 deer in nine Michigan counties have tested positive for the disease. Michigan joins a list of 26 states and three Canadian provinces with confirmed CWD in wild cervid populations.

Among many other proactive steps taken to fight this disease, Michigan—along with Wisconsin—formed a coalition of state and federal natural resource managers, wildlife biologists, veterinarians and social scientists.

Russ Mason, DNR executive in residence and adjunct professor at MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is helping to lead this coalition. Before Mason’s recent appointment through MSU, he oversaw the DNR’s CWD efforts as the department’s longtime Wildlife Division chief.

“By working together in our fight against CWD, we are capitalizing on the talents provided by universities and combining resources across the state and federal government,” Mason said. “This will help us move more quickly to identify solutions that will help us manage this unique disease.”

In addition, the MSU-DNR Chronic Wasting Disease Advisory Group was created in 2018 to identify and fund high-priority CWD research and outreach activities. Recognizing the threat that CWD poses to Michigan’s hunting traditions and local economies, the Michigan Legislature provided $4.3 million in funds in 2019 to support these activities as well as to help fund CWD field surveillance.

Funding new research, education efforts

In April, the advisory group issued a national call for proposals to seek collaborative research, education and outreach projects to address the most important issues around wildlife disease in Michigan, especially CWD in deer.

This past summer, 11 projects were selected for funding. Some projects are now underway and expected to last one to two years.

Project topics include:

  • Developing a rapid, in the field CWD screening test.
  • Testing two promising decontamination agents to inactivate CWD prions (abnormally folded proteins that cause disease) on different materials with which prions may come into contact.
  • Examining how composting of infected deer carcasses could help with the decomposition of prions.
  • Creating an engagement process with people living in the core CWD area, culminating in a multiday workshop to develop an education and outreach plan.
  • Developing a study to examine how deer hunting regulations influence deer populations affected by the disease.
  • Studying CWD prions in the environment.
  • Evaluating current analytical tools used for disease surveillance.
  • Developing efficient CWD surveillance and management strategies for Michigan and establishing a framework for other states.
  • Developing cost-effective techniques to manage genetic data in relation to CWD.
  • Hiring a statewide MSU extension educator to create, deliver and evaluate CWD communication and education.
  • Offering a multistate CWD strategic planning session.

Already, beneficial results are emerging. The multistate strategic planning initiative project, spearheaded by Sonja A. Christensen of MSU’s Boone and Crocket Quantitative Wildlife Center, brought together nearly 50 invited participants representing 14 universities, seven state and federal agencies, the Wildlife Management Institute and CWD Alliance.

“These experts were brought together with the specific objective of creating cross-disciplinary conversation and information sharing,” Mason said. “This first time ever approach was very fruitful and the group will continue to meet so that accomplishments and emerging challenges can be shared.”

Next steps

Over the next year and beyond, the multistate consortium members will continue to work together to address priorities and improve coordination of research efforts and exchange of information.

Based on the consortium’s strategic planning initiative, another request for proposals for additional CWD research and outreach projects is planned for the near future. A portion of the funding appropriated by the Michigan Legislature remains for these additional projects.

For more information about CWD and the research projects, visit and

To stop the spread of chronic wasting disease, Michigan’s conservation officers are on the front line, enforcing state bans on deer baiting and feeding.

“These bans are in place to try to help minimize the amount of contact between deer congregated where baiting and feeding occur,” said John Pepin, Michigan DNR deputy public information officer. “Chronic wasting disease can be transmitted through direct deer-to-deer contact, or by contact with saliva, feces, urine, blood and contaminated feed, water, plants, soil or carcass parts.”

In the Lower Peninsula, a ban went into effect Jan. 31 for all 68 counties south of the Mackinac Bridge. Regulations also restrict carcass movement in the Lower Peninsula and prohibit importation of certain carcass parts statewide.

In the Upper Peninsula, baiting and feeding deer is banned in a core CWD surveillance area situated in portions of Dickinson, Menominee and Delta counties. Throughout the rest of the U.P., baiting and feeding is allowed, but must be done in line with state regulations.


Conservation officers are responsible for locating illegal bait, educating hunters and enforcing current regulations to help reduce the risk of CWD. Officers manage deer and elk carcass movement by conducting increased patrols, enforcement and surveillance at primary access points between counties and states.

Illegal baiting can result in court costs and fines, a revoked hunting license, confiscated game and jail time.

“We’re watching the borders,” said Sgt. Jeff Rabbers, who supervises conservation officers in west Michigan. “We sit along major highways looking for deer being transported. We may rely on motor vehicle code violations to initiate a vehicle stop to address potential game violations.”

Because CWD can remain in the soil, it’s important not to transport deer out of the CWD management zone or core area in the Lower Peninsula, to properly dispose of carcass remains and abide by the no baiting regulations.

“Our goal is to reduce the rate of spread, to keep it centralized and not allow it to move out of those spots,” Rabbers said.

Prior to their taking effect, conservation officers spent 2018 educating the public about the major baiting and feeding rule changes.

“We get a lot of questions about the baiting,” said Conservation Officer Carter Woodwyk, who patrols Allegan County. “It seems like people are trying to do their best and follow the rules. I prepare for deer season by educating people before the time comes. Obviously, nobody wants to get in trouble. CWD is such a big thing right now, everyone wants to help out as much as they can, nobody wants to see a deer herd get taken over by CWD.”

Infected deer herds threaten the long-term viability of those deer populations, as well as pose negative impacts to future deer hunting opportunities.

In 2018, conservation officers made over 2,000 arrests related to wildlife violations, including 44 arrests related to CWD baiting and feeding violations within the CWD core management zone in Lower Michigan.



Conservation officers patrol for deer baiting ban violators well before opening day.

Eyes in the sky

Throughout the state, conservation officers have already conducted “bait flights” and patrols to identify suspicious baiting activity.

The officers determine where to conduct bait flights based on historical problem areas, complaints and suspicious activity they’ve witnessed while patrolling.

“Once the plane leaves the airport, the officers disperse into the identified areas,” Rabbers said. “The officers on the ground are listening to the officer in the plane, who is constantly talking to the pilot, indicating what they see. The officers on the ground are tracking the conversation to determine where they need to drive.”

Pilots are vital assistants to conservation officers.

The officer and the pilot are both looking out the window with binoculars. The pilot is spinning and dropping the plane so the officer can get a closer look, along with plotting coordinates and taking photos as evidence. The pilot indicates the photograph number and a description of the photo for the officer’s documentation.

If officers identify baiting activity from the air, they likely will continue to investigate on the ground.

“When we conduct bait flights, it’s not as critical to get an officer there right away,” said Woodwyk. “The bait’s not going to go away. If we catch them with bait now, they’re probably going to have bait out there on opening day. They want their chance to shoot a deer.”

Sometimes, conservation officers in the plane may communicate what they see to officers on the ground, so they can immediately address violations.

“When you’re in the air, you can tell you’re on a property managed by an individual or the same group of people because you’ll see multiple hunting sites that are all set up the same way,” Woodwyk said.

Conservation officers aren’t just looking for bait, they’re also looking for animal movement.


“If you see a beat-down deer trail, you might find bait or a spin-cast feeder at the end of the trail,” said Woodwyk. “It’s amazing what you see from the air: you see the layout of everything that you wouldn’t be able to see on the ground. If you see a blind, it’s easy to see if there’s bait nearby.”

Conservation officers suggest baiting really isn’t worth the risk.

“Flights are a simple procedure that can be effective,” Rabbers said. “Our stance for the first couple years has been education, turned into strict enforcement. As a result, we’re seeing more compliance and less violations.”

Preventing the spread of animal disease is important to sustaining Michigan’s valuable natural resources, including white-tailed deer herds.

Conservation officers are frontline defenders tasked with informing the hunting public and enforcing baiting regulations to help prevent the spread of CWD and other wildlife diseases.

Their important efforts are helping sustain Michigan’s longstanding deer hunting heritage for the hunters of today and tomorrow.

Current deer hunting regulations are available online and can be downloaded to your mobile device at


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