Map exposes deer disease’s sobering reality

Jenn Ballard, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's assistant chief of research, briefed the commission about chronic wasting disease Wednesday.

Ballard's latest map shows the disease steadily filling gaps between occurrences across the state. The highest prevalence rates, about 32%, are in the vicinity of the Buffalo National River. The percentages of infected deer might not exceed that threshold, but Ballard said that subsequent generations of deer might not be as robust as those in previous generations and will not be able to withstand outbreaks of other diseases that commonly occur among wild deer.

The agency's strategy is to slow the spread of the disease and contain it where possible. It would be more possible if hunters would shoot young bucks. The intent of eliminating antler point restrictions in the CWD control zones is to encourage hunters to shoot young bucks, but hunters are not doing that, Ballard said.

Antler restrictions, beginning with the 3-point rule and advancing to beam length and antler spread width requirements, were implemented in the late 1990s. They represent an era when Quality Deer Management doctrine began driving deer management in Arkansas. They worked. They shifted hunting pressure from 1.5-year old bucks to 2.5-year old bucks. Allowing bucks an extra year to mature enabled a greater percentage to advance to ages when their antlers become interesting to deer hunters.

Chronic wasting disease ended the Quality Deer Management era for wild whitetails in a large and growing portion of Arkansas. Commission deer biologists say that the disease crops off older bucks in high prevalence areas so that very few grow old enough to grow large, heavy-mass antlers.

Anecdotally, that appears to be true. People who own and cultivate prime deer habitat in northern Arkansas say they have not seen a buck that meets their standards in years.

We have been having similar conversations in South Arkansas. The club to which I belong has what you could consider typical piney woods deer. We have a lot of basket-rack 6-point bucks and small 8-points. A few grow antlers that we consider to be trophy quality for the genetics we have coupled with the type of habitat we have and the forage it offers. We also have a disproportionate amount of bucks that live long without ever growing legal antlers. I killed one such buck several years ago that was estimated to be 8-10 years old.

Club rules formerly required a legal buck to have an inside width of 12 inches. We repealed that rule because it diminished the hunting experience for many of our members who were perfectly happy killing basket-rack 6-points and small 8-points. Quite a few small bucks were probably checked as club legal. Our club operates on the honor system, so we don't police the check sheet. We got rid of the 12-inch rule and reverted to the 3-point rule.

Nevertheless, some members believe that our club's industrial pine habitat has the ability to grow Boone and Crockett quality bucks. The most committed of that group haven't shot a buck in years, and they also refuse to shoot does. Frankly, very few of the adults in our club shoot small-racked bucks anymore, but we have not seen a corresponding rise in the number of 4- and 5-year old bucks.

That debate occurs in every club in the Gulf Coastal Plain. Chronic wasting disease adds another variable to the equation. Ultimately, a decision not to actively manage deer by not shooting a legal deer could affect the composition and health of the deer herds at large as chronic wasting disease continues its inexorable march southward.

Ultimately, the disease might determine the quality of deer we can expect to see in the wild. The unspoken secret is that the only logical way to control CWD is to have a lot fewer deer to spread it. Nobody wants fewer deer even if fewer deer means healthier deer.

The QDM era was a golden time for deer hunting in Arkansas, but Ballard's map reflects the fact that we are now in the Post-QDM era for wild deer. The 3-point rule, the 12/14 rule and the 15/18 rule yielded fantastic results, but among wild deer, chronic wasting disease might eventually nullify QDM methodology.

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