Skip to Main Content

How Hunters Can Be a Part of the Solution to Slow the Spread of CWD

Virginia hunters can assist the DWR in its goal of slowing the spread of CWD.

By Bruce Ingram

Photos by Bruce Ingram

Recently, I visited a Virginia sporting goods store, and there among the shelves rested dozens of bags of “deer corn” and other baits for sale for the upcoming season. Of course, these items are illegal to use during the hunting season, but one would never know it from what is on display at this and other similar stores. Nelson Lafon, forest wildlife program manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), explains how illegal baiting and legal feeding facilitates the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

“When CWD was first found in Virginia in 2009, staff visited sporting goods and other stores and noticed that many were selling deer bait,” he says. “DWR only has the authority to regulate the act of feeding and baiting deer, but not the selling of products that serve as feed and bait. As far as slowing the spread of CWD, there is no difference to the deer whether a product is sold as feed or bait.”

Lafon emphasizes that causing deer to concentrate in one spot by illegally baiting them during hunting seasons or feeding them after seasons close results in a higher likelihood that more whitetails will be exposed to CWD prions found in their saliva, feces, and urine.

A herd of deer in front of a house; gathering sites like front lawns are part of what facilitate the spread of diseases in deer

Bait sites, like this one in suburban Virginia, facilitate the spread of CWD.

Interestingly, says the biologist, because of the spread of CWD and the creation of Disease Management Areas (DMAs), in some one-third of the state, feeding and baiting deer and elk is now off limits at any time. Also of note is that it is illegal to feed deer anywhere in the Old Dominion from September 1 through the first Saturday in January and through the end of the late deer hunting seasons (January-March) in counties where seasons remain open.

Lafon refutes the idea that there is no difference between whitetails visiting oak groves and food plots for nourishment and people feeding/baiting these animals.

“The number of deer frequenting and concentrating themselves at a bait pile is magnitudes greater than the number of deer using a similar-sized small area in a forest or food plot,” he emphasizes. “Also, again, their saliva, feces, and urine is also much more concentrated at that pile.

“Deer that come afterwards will be much more at risk of ingesting those CWD prions than they would in a forest or food plot. In addition, increased deer movement in the same area can increase transmission of CWD.”

Humans putting out food or bait can also change the way whitetails move naturally through an area, making them more vulnerable to predators such as coyotes. And corn left at bait or feed sites can become infiltrated by fungal aflatoxins, which at certain amounts can prove fatal to deer, turkeys, and other wildlife.

Lafon adds that in many areas of the Old Dominion, DWR is trying to reduce the number of deer, and baiting and feeding is not helping that goal.

How Hunters Can Help

Lafon emphasizes that the DWR needs the help of state sportsmen and women, as well as wildlife enthusiasts, in its quest to slow the spread of CWD.

“Hunters can choose to do the right thing and not purchase food to bait deer during hunting seasons or feed deer when hunting seasons are over,” he says. “Our biologists recommend not feeding deer year round—period. If hunters want to really help deer on the properties they own, hunt on, or lease, work to improve the habitat, which will improve the health of local whitetails and other wildlife while not increasing the transmission of CWD.

“Hunters should also follow the rules about not transporting deer from DMAs to other areas where the disease is not currently found. They should not bring whole carcasses from other states into Virginia. And when they hunt, they shouldn’t use natural deer urine, which is against state law. Also, people should report to the DWR wildlife helpline if they see a deer exhibiting symptoms of CWD such as stumbling or starving. In short, hunters should strive to be part of the solution… not part of the problem.”

I hunt deer in West Virginia every year, and last September on opening day of the Mountain State’s archery season, I arrowed a doe. After dragging the whitetail back to my truck, I spent several hours, with my knees on a tarp, quartering the animal and removing the top loins from the spinal column. The head and spinal column, which are the parts along with the lymphatic system most likely to cause the spread of CWD, were left behind.

Given the heat and the fact that I was in an uncomfortable position for several hours, it was not a pleasant experience. But worse than my temporary discomfort would be the guilt I would experience if I brought a deer afflicted with CWD back to my home county of Botetourt.

Last Words

Lafon encourages sportsmen to educate themselves on CWD and to disregard the various conspiracies about the disease that exist on the internet.

“I also encourage hunters to keep hunting,” he says. “People are rightly concerned about CWD, but if people stop hunting, we won’t be able to manage deer. The DWR needs the help of hunters to keep deer numbers in check. Hunters in DMAs can bring their deer head to a volunteer drop station 24/7 throughout the hunting season so that samples can be taken and analyzed.”

If hunters suspect that baiting or illegal feeding is occurring, they can also anonymously contact DWR. Several years ago, I did just that. While bow hunting in Botetourt County, I watched a farmer, 50 yards from me and 25 yards beyond the property boundary, dump what looked like a load of apples. Arriving home, I contacted Conservation Police Officer (CPO) Sergeant John Koloda and reported the incident.

After investigating, Koloda reported that the man had merely been making apple butter and had dumped the peels. Sometimes a pile of apples is not bait… it’s just a pile of discarded fruit. But he also said that because of the presence of the apple remains, I could not legally, or just as important ethically, hunt from my stand for 30 days.

“We recognize that all these CWD-related issues have placed additional burdens on Virginia’s hunters and the way they hunt,” concludes Lafon. “The DWR very much appreciates their help in slowing the spread of CWD.”

Feeding and Baiting Regulations

  • Baiting: It is illegal in Virginia to hunt, chase with dogs, or attempt to kill game birds and animals from a baited site.
  • Feeding: It is illegal in Virginia to feed deer or elk statewide from September 1to the first Saturday in January and during any open deer or elk season. It is illegal to feed deer or elk year round in Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise counties as well as counties listed. Find more info or reference page 45 of the DWR Hunting and Trapping Regulations. It is illegal to feed bears year round, statewide.
  • More on unlawful feeding.
  • October 5, 2022