Chronic Wasting Disease: Hunters Perceptions and Attitudes
Illinois is approaching the end of the twentieth year of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) management in the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population in the state. First discovered in Illinois in 2002, CWD is a fatal neurological disease that belongs to a family of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) diseases and is contagious among members of the Cervid family, including white-tailed deer. CWD is known to exist in free-ranging Cervid populations in 28 states, three Canadian provinces, along with Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) conducts annual surveillance of the deer population to monitor the occurrence of CWD positive deer in Illinois using samples provided from hunter-harvested deer or other sources, such as roadkill, reports of sick deer, and post-hunting season targeted removal (sharpshooting).
Since 2012, the occurrence of CWD in free-ranging deer populations has expanded in northern Illinois from 10 counties (2012) to 19 counties (2021).
In addition to annual surveillance and management, the dynamic nature of CWD in Illinois necessitates periodic surveys of deer hunters to monitor hunter perceptions and attitudes toward CWD management actions. The Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) has twice partnered with the IDNR (2012 and 2021) to survey deer hunters in Illinois to determine their perceptions and attitudes toward the management of CWD in the deer population. Many participants from both surveys had limited knowledge about CWD in Illinois, though hunters in counties with CWD present were more knowledgeable about CWD. Hunters expressed less concern during the most recent survey about the impact of CWD on their own personal health, though participants expressed more concern about CWD’s impact on the health of the deer population in Illinois and potential for CWD to dramatically reduce the deer herd. Participants during the 2021 survey believed there was slightly more risk of becoming ill from CWD compared to past results, though hunters in counties with CWD felt less potential risk to themselves from CWD than other hunters.
The IDNR has used several management actions in response to CWD, including increasing the number of deer permits available for hunters, conducting targeted removal of deer in infected areas, testing hunter-harvested and road-killed deer for CWD, banning deer feeding, and holding special CWD management hunts. Most hunters expressed trust in the IDNR to effectively manage CWD in Illinois and provide information about CWD to the public, though trust continues to be slightly lower among hunters in counties with CWD present. Hunters in counties with CWD were more knowledgeable than other hunters about the IDNR’s management of CWD in Illinois, including which management actions the IDNR uses to manage CWD in the deer population. Most participants who hunted in CWD counties knew that the IDNR tested deer harvested by hunters in CWD-affected counties, banned the feeding of wild deer, and held special CWD management hunts in CWD-affected counties.
Preferences for actions used by the IDNR to manage CWD in Illinois differed among survey participants. Most participants who hunted in a county without CWD continue to believe that the IDNR should use all methods necessary to manage CWD in the deer population in Illinois, though most hunters in CWD counties were split between using all methods necessary to manage CWD and only using existing hunting seasons to manage CWD. Participants felt that holding special CWD management hunts in CWD-affected counties has been most effective in reducing CWD in the deer population. Holding special CWD management hunts in CWD-affected counties and increasing deer harvest through hunting in CWD-affected counties were considered the most acceptable management actions among respondents to both surveys. Targeted removal has been used by the IDNR to control the spread of CWD throughout the deer herd by supplementing the harvest of deer in counties with CWD present, but this program is controversial among some hunters. During both surveys, nearly half of hunters in counties with CWD believed that targeted removal should be eliminated even if it is the most effective method in controlling the spread of CWD in Illinois, whereas there was more support for the program among hunters in counties without CWD. Regardless of the action taken to manage CWD, most participants believed that reduced populations of deer in CWD-affected counties would be an acceptable potential outcome. Periodic surveys of hunters, along with annual surveillance of the deer population, provide valuable information for the IDNR to manage CWD in the deer population in Illinois today and in the future.
Eric Walberg is the Human Dimensions Research Coordinator at the Illinois Natural History Survey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned his B.S from Minnesota State University and M.S. from the University of Minnesota.
Dr. Craig A. Miller is Leader of the Human Dimensions Research Program for the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois. His principle research focus is human dimensions of wildlife (especially hunters), with emphasis on integrating human dimensions research into state agency planning and management programs.