It's inevitable that chronic wasting disease (CWD) will turn up in most Arkansas counties, so what does that mean to hunters and deer management?
Probably the biggest effect CWD will have on hunting is parallel to its tendency to kill mature bucks. CWD demonstrably kills older deer, as noted by hunters and wildlife biologists across the country. While testing deer in Newton County, Arkansas's area of highest CWD prevalence, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) biologists said that hardly any bucks older than 4 years were sampled. They concluded that bucks of that age simply don't exist in that area anymore.
A skeptic might counter that 4-year and older bucks are very elusive and random in their movements and habits. The most accomplished hunters cannot ever count on seeing an old buck, so the AGFC cannot draw any conclusions from the inability of biologists to lure mature bucks into a sample-gathering zone at a given time.
I expressed the same doubts initially, but I am not qualified to dispute the body of evidence to the contrary.
Ken Reeves of Harrison, a former member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, manages 1,200 acres of habitat in Searcy County for wildlife. His neighbors manage similarly, expanding significantly the acreage of their control area. Reeves said he has not killed a deer recreationally on his property in five years because none exist any longer that satisfy management standards.
In 2021, Reeves said, a number of 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year old deer appeared on game cameras with antlers that showed trophy potential. Reeves said that, hunting mortality notwithstanding, CWD will probably kill those bucks before they can realize their potential.
"My best guess is that they are not making it," Reeves said. "My neighbors manage intensively, and they haven't seen a shootable buck in two years. I haven't shot a deer in my place in maybe five years. I just hope I live long enough to see a buck from my stand that makes me excited, one that makes my heart race when I lay down at night like I used to."
Does are scarce, too, Reeves said, adding that the paucity of deer has not caused them to to curb their management efforts. Reeves said that he and his neighbors invest the same amount of time and energy creating and managing habitat as ever. However, they don't spend nearly as much time hunting as before.
"Sometimes you get a picture of a big bruiser buck that you never see in person in the daylight," Reeves said. "We don't get those anymore."
Despite the discouraging trends, Reeves said he has seen positive signs. Five years ago, Reeves said, six deer were shot on his property. Five tested positive for CWD, and a sixth deer was not tested.
Last year, Reeves said, almost all of the deer he observed on his property were sick. They were emaciated, and their hair was thin, with bare patches.
This year, Reeves said, the deer look healthy. They are fat and sleek with good tone and muscular definition.
"My guess is that all of those deer that were sick last year died," Reeves said. "These healthy ones are not the same deer."
Reeves said that the elk on his property are also in excellent physical condition. CWD affects elk, deer, moose and other cervids.
A wildlife biologist not affiliated with the AGFC often offers me perspective independent from AGFC doctrine. He said that to control the spread of CWD, Arkansas's deer herd should be reduced to its size in the 1980s. Free-ranging deer will rarely live past age 4, he said, so hunters will have to adapt their expectations. Old bucks will become increasingly rare, so there will be diminishing expectations of killing bucks with the size racks we have come to expect in Arkansas.
My advisor speculates that hunters will adapt back to hunting for the pleasure of hunting and that we will revert to our values from decades past, when we were thrilled to see any buck.
It is hard to even fathom going back to that, but it is not a management prerogative. CWD will force it upon us, as it already has in so many other places.
However, the AGFC should retain the three-point rule to maintain a baseline quality for bucks in case the CWD situation changes in some way. The agency and hunters have invested too much managing for better quality deer to throw it all away with a mere regulation change.