Understanding the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act, and other current federal programs aimed at containing the spread of the disease
On Dec. 8, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5608, the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act, 393-33, taking the first step to address the disease with $70 million in dedicated funding.
Introduced in October by Representatives Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) and Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), the bill will provide funding annually through 2028 for, as the name implies, research and management of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).
Should the bill pass, two funding sources would be created. First, $35 million will go toward researching the disease and putting boots on the ground, while the other half would go toward management practices. The bill has two other components, one involving public education that would be utilized by federal, state, and Tribal agencies, and the other a directive to have the U.S. Department of Agriculture review its CWD Herd Certification Program. In all, this would prove highly beneficial for wildlife agencies at all levels, and, to Torin Miller, director of policy at the National Deer Association, the bill is the necessary framework for the future of cervid management.
“We’re going to see the biggest difference come out of the money,” Miller said. “The management is what the states are already doing: surveillance, folks on the ground, sampling, all that type of stuff. And then the research helps us learn more about it . There’s still a lot we don’t know; about how it develops in the body, how it transmits, how it survives and lives in the environment, and is picked up and spreads. So there’s a lot still to learn.
“We’re hopeful that through that we find either better tests or rapid field tests; or who knows what we might find that could help us, but it’s incredibly important. And then the educational part is something we fully support as well, something we’re heavily involved in.”
Miller also pointed out that, while the bill is moving at a good pace, it’s not a new concept but rather a culmination of many past bills.
“This particular legislation we’ve been working on for about a year, but in reality, this bill was founded on previous bills specifically introduced by Rep. Ron Kind,” Miller said. “In previous Congresses, the issue that we have run into is that there have been, sort of, multiple CWD bills. They were all similar but all different enough that it was hard to gather enough support across the board to push one or more than one of them through. So the thought process was, from Thompson and Kind’s offices, why don’t we consolidate efforts and put everything into one bill and get it passed. Their offices reached out for input from a variety of groups on both the more traditional hunting and conservation side, and then from the industry side, too. So we feel really good about it; it’s got input from a lot of different folks.”
The fast passage was something Miller praised, though noting Thompson’s position as a ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture was favorable. It also helps that conservation legislation is highly bipartisan and popular.
Still, while the nuts and bolts of the bill are clear, there’s plenty to unpack about the current state of America’s cervid herds.
The current state of CWD funding and management
Chronic Wasting Disease has been on biologists’ radars since the 1960s when it was detected in Colorado. Now, it has a stronghold in each region of the country but mostly impacts one or two states in each—except for the West where the disease has a stronghold in many states.
Miller, a Pennsylvania native and lifelong hunter, took a moment to reflect on the history of the disease. Though it wasn’t detected in the Keystone State until 2012, growing up around deer hunters has shown that the disease is being taken more seriously as each year passes.
“When I started hunting—that would have been the early 2000s, like 2004-05—it was not a thing,” he said. “So within the last 20 years or so it’s become a big deal. And even within the last few years, I think it’s become even more of a bigger hit on folks’ radar, and I think a lot of that is because agencies are managing so aggressively and proactively now that folks don’t have a choice but to be aware of it. There are lots of rules and regulations that come along with CWD management, specifically when you’re hunting in a CWD management area, or CWD zone—they just have to be aware of that. I think that’s helpful.
“We still hit some roadblocks with folks not appreciating the severity of CWD and the risks that presents to deer and our hunting traditions. But I think we’re seeing a shift where people do understand that it’s an important topic, it does pose a risk, and I think that we’re starting to make some progress and getting people to support their wildlife agencies and some of these more aggressive management approaches. And I know it’s not easy as a hunter to go through the extra steps when you’re hunting in a CWD zone; it’s not always efficient and it’s easy to want to be lazy or to complain about that. But it just is what it is—it’s not going to go away, and the best thing that we can do is manage it. That’s all the states are trying to do.”
Having Congress recognize the importance of CWD management and research is also a big step, and Miller noted having the funds to take proactive steps in those two directions is critical.
“It is incredibly important,” he said. “There’s not a lot of dedicated funding for the states, so states are having to dip into their budgets that are already outlined for other fish and wildlife management projects. That leads to two issues: either their CWD management and surveillance are way underfunded, which we’re seeing as the case in a lot of areas, or they’re having to take resources from other management activities in the state. So the fact that this bill provides dedicated funding for the states for research and management is incredibly huge. And then it also gives them this new funding that they can dedicate towards new management surveillance projects. That’s bringing on new hires, increasing the number of CWD check stations, the rate that they can sample the deer and get those results back to hunters; there’s a lot of things that this funding is going to help. And the big thing is that states are just strapped for cash. You’re never going to hear a state agency tell you that they have a big enough budget to do all they’re tasked with doing, and this just helps alleviate some of that stress.”
Though this is a step in the right direction, this wouldn’t be the first time Congress passed legislation aimed at addressing CWD. As part of the American’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Act passed in October 2020, a CWD Task Force was created within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. H.R 5608 involves this task force, but, since the ACE Act’s passage, there’s been no real movement within the overseeing agency concerning the group.
Bureaucratic hurdles surround the CWD Task Force
The USFWS Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force was authorized to create an action plan for state and federal agencies to increase research of the disease and how to stymie its spread. Yet, since the creation of that task force, nothing has truly been put in motion.
“We’ve met with folks at the Fish and Wildlife Service about that task force,” Miller said. “There’s some confusion about exactly what that task force looks like, who it includes, and how it’s going to get underway. It’s mandated by the ACE Act, so we know that there’s going to be a task force, but we still don’t know what’s going to look like yet. There hasn’t been a lot of movement there. The nice thing with this is that it does ask for consultation with that task force to help guide some of these things. What exactly that looks like, that’s going to be up to the Fish and Wildlife Service Department of Interior to figure that out, but there hasn’t been a lot of movement there, unfortunately.”
When asked if bureaucratic hurdles have gotten in the way, Miller precipitately agreed.
“And then, it’s how big do we make it? Who do we include? And then the concern from our end is that it gets too big,” he added. “Then it’s just hard to actually get things done and to get folks together. So it’s just hard. Maybe some of that was that the ACE Act didn’t include enough guiding language on what the task force should look like. We’re certainly happy that this exists, but there needs to be a concerted effort to get it underway and in a way that it can function properly, that it can be efficient, and that it can exist for a long time to actually impact change.”
Captive deer and the spread of CWD
Outside of the Fish and Wildlife Service, another federal program that hasn’t lived up to its expectations is the aforementioned Herd Certification Program. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership reported the HCP has “proven inadequate to stem the spread of the disease” since its inception in 2014, something Miller echoed.
“I obviously can’t speak for the TRCP, but I can speak for us,” he said. “The essential basics of the Herd Certification Program are that it’s a voluntary program, that states can choose to adopt or not, to serve to help certify their captive cervid herds. The certification includes multiple levels and criteria that farms or facilities have to meet, but the ultimate goal is that once your facility becomes certified then there should be a very low likelihood that your herd has any CWD risk; that the animals in your herd should be essentially certified CWD free, and there should be little risk of your herd spreading CWD to other herds. The problem with that—and I don’t know the exact numbers—but there has been a large, large number of certified herds that have shown up as CWD positive. So something is not working.
“Whether that’s the criteria whether it’s the fact that it’s a voluntary program—not all states have adopted the program—there are a lot of things that are just not working. The purpose of the review is to highlight why we think it’s not working and what steps can be taken to ensure that it works as intended, so that if a herd is actually certified then we can feel pretty confident that it’s a CWD-free herd. But that’s sort of the general overview, that we’re seeing certified herds that are putting out CWD positive animals. That shouldn’t be the case with an effective program.”
Although Miller didn’t have the data on hand, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has provided data since FY2015. The service’s most recent report from FY20 noted that 22 new farmed cervid herds tested positive, bringing the total to 139 in participating states. Further, 13 of the newly identified herds were not part of the HCP, two were considered enrolled, and seven were certified under the program.
The question is then raised, should the certification be mandatory? To this, Miller explained it can get messy with a federal mandate.
“The problem with that is, the herds are state-regulated, so when you get into federal mandates—especially now—on states, we’re going to see a lot of issues. And it varies by state; some states’ ag departments are responsible for managing captive cervids, and some states’ wildlife departments are responsible. That’s the issue with it being voluntary, is that whatever state department is responsible for managing captive herds has to say, ‘We like this federal program, this is what we’re going to use and this is what we’re going to ask our farms to use.’”
Another hot-button question is whether or not captive cervids are a leading cause of the spread of CWD. Though on a local scale it could be more difficult to argue that they are, the interstate transfer of farmed cervids is a major factor in the spread. In 2021, multiple newspapers across the country reported new detections, while a September report by Outdoor Life cited that Maple Hill Farms, a deer farm in Wisconsin, has sent hundreds of deer to multiple facilities in and out of state over the last five years.
“I think we would absolutely be comfortable saying it’s a leading factor in the spread of disease,” Miller said. “The issue is the transport of animals, especially the transport of live animals. It shows us that’s the way that the disease spreads most quickly and to new areas. Certainly, the disease spreads in other ways, and hunters transporting carcasses—especially carcasses from CWD zones—is another factor. But one of the easiest things to control is the movement of live deer. We oppose all movement of live cervids by private individuals or wildlife agencies until reliable and practical live-animal tests exist.”
A changing mindset around CWD
As mentioned, hunters are beginning to take CWD more seriously, and with the speedy movement of this bill through the House, it’s clear Congressional leaders are, too. Miller noted that in a recent action alert about this bill, around 800 messages of support came in within two days.
To help visualize it further, the action alert was sent out and the bill passed within 48 hours.
“We got a lot of support from our members,” Miller said. “We do tend to have really good engagement on CWD issues, and we hear from a lot of our members that they think this is a big deal. But with that said, on the flip side with that same action alert, I got a handful of replies from folks who think it’s a waste of money to try and manage it. So there’s definitely a resistance to it, but I do feel like that resistance is getting less and less.”
Further, it’s no coincidence that the bill’s leading sponsors are from two of the more CWD-affected states. Plus, while the current trend is that conservation legislation is highly bipartisan, to Miller, his colleagues, and many cervid hunters around the country, it’s time to get dedicated funding to fight the spread of the disease.
“The data shows that if we do nothing, it only gets worse,” Miller said. “And while there’s no information or science that suggests yet that eating a CWD-infected deer is bad for humans, or can infect humans, it’s just not a risk that hunters should be willing to take. The CDC recommends that you do not do that.
“I think a big concern for the hunting world is that if we’re getting to a point where half or more of our deer or even less … if you can’t eat that deer, it really takes away from the sport. And that’s a scary thought. We’re already having a tough time recruiting new hunters to the sport, and if we’re not able to eat our harvests, it’s going to become even more of a challenge.”
Andrew is an award-winning, professional journalist, lifelong hunter, and digital editor of Project Upland. Born in West Virginia, he's spent most of his life chasing squirrels, rabbits, and whitetails around the Ohio Valley and Allegheny Plateau, but has since expanded his repertoire to include waterfowl and upland birds. A 2017 graduate of West Virginia University's Reed College of Media, Andrew's writing and art have appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, and media sites.