Scientific Fisheries & Wildlife Management in Michigan at Crossroads

March 11, 2019

Wildlife

Legislative Intervention Threatens Michigan’s Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Response

Although nearly five years has passed, it hardly seems that long ago when Michigan hunters, anglers and trappers were celebrating the signing of the Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (SFWCA). Brought forward by a diverse coalition of sportsmen-conservationists, this legislation seemingly memorialized the efforts of so many who had come before them. This legislation became necessary in spite of the 1996 passage of Proposal ‘G’ which had given permanent authority to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and its Commission to manage the taking of game in accordance with the principles of sound scientific management.

We now find ourselves in 2019 and in the early stages of a response plan targeted to slow the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Michigan’s white-tailed deer herd. It now appears that many hunters are voicing opposition to one of its key provisions, specifically, the ban on deer baiting in the lower peninsula. This opposition to the baiting ban has not been lost on politicians, many of whom represent districts where historically you could get elected on the single platform issue of DNR-bashing. In what should be viewed as a flagrant disregard of not only these principals, but also those of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, legislation has now been introduced by Senator Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington – Senate Bill 37) which seeks to remove regulatory authority over deer baiting and feeding from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and transfer that to the State Legislature. Yes. Really.

I’m not sure how we got to a point where the informed views of professionals who have dedicated their careers to research and study are now viewed as “elites” and those who choose to abide by their recommendations are being called “elitists.” We would not dream of summarily rejecting a diagnosis from our family physician because they act like know-it-alls. If our child’s health was at stake we wouldn’t dream of rejecting the opinion of a specialist in favor of a neighbor who has been reading “some stuff” on-line. So how is it different if we substitute the human health professional with the expertise of a wildlife biologist?

CWD Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin DNR

In spite of having the opportunity to learn from the experience of others, many Michigan hunters seem to be intent on replicating the unfortunate CWD management decisions of other states. One need look no farther than across Lake Michigan to find a state which began with an aggressive science-based strategy to CWD containment, only to later succumb to political pressures as a result of popular backlash. Several Wisconsin counties now find themselves with CWD prevalence rates which approach 50%. This, a disease which is 100% fatal and typically a death sentence within 2 to 3 years of contraction.

Although the risks associated with concentrating deer in small areas is greater with CWD, it is also disappointing that some point to the DNR’s cooperative strategy with the agricultural community in response to northeast Michigan’s Bovine TB as an example of an agency-led failure. Although complete eradication of Bovine TB may never have been a realistic goal, in the 20+ years of TB management which included a deer baiting and feeding ban, the prevalence rate has been reduced by an estimated two-thirds to a sustained level of 2% or less for the past 15 years. Although baiting ban compliance in the affected northeast Michigan region has been far from perfect, the vast majority of hunters have successfully adapted and the rest of Michigan’s lower peninsula now can too.

This is not to say that there is no role for citizen engagement in the development of resource management policy – quite to the contrary. Virtually all of our hunting and fishing regulations represent a blending of the sciences of which the social component is a near equal to that of the biological. On the issue of wildlife disease management and the sustainability of species, however, peer-reviewed research and the opinions of professionals have to supersede those of personal preference and anecdotal beliefs. The baiting ban at issue was not proposed in a vacuum. Before adoption by the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, there was a series of public meetings and open discussions as the recommendations from Michigan’s CWD Work Group were deliberated.

It is important to recognize that many who oppose hunting and trapping will also be watching these “crossroads” with interest. At the time of its adoption in 2014, many anti-hunting groups contended that the SFWCA had little to do with science-based wildlife management, but was entirely about instituting a Michigan wolf hunt. Opposition to this legislative intervention will provide an opportunity to prove those individuals and organizations wrong.

Even if you’re not a deer hunter or you are among the baiting ban skeptics, you should recognize that the next time it could be you and yours who will be in the legislative or ballot box cross-hairs. Our collective ability to stand up to that and all future challenges will be decided in large part depending on which of these roads we choose.

P.A.R.

About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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