CWD Drains Deer Dollars, It Doesn’t Generate Them

May 25, 2022 By: Kip Adams

Missouri Department of Conservation staff collect lymph nodes from hunter-harvested deer for CWD testing. Photo courtesy of MDC.

Recently, NDA took a close look at some of the misguided beliefs and conspiracy theories surrounding chronic wasting disease. One of the most common among CWD deniers are the folks who quickly claim this fatal deer disease is a “money-making scheme” by state wildlife agencies. This is among the most laughable of claims, because rather than generating magic funds, CWD is an enormous drain on the existing budgets of state wildlife agencies. 

This is true in states that haven’t even found CWD in deer yet, as some level of surveillance is necessary for early detection. For example, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation hasn’t found a positive case in wild deer since 2005, but they spend $300,000 annually to conduct surveillance in wild white-tailed deer given staff time for collection, sampling, testing, and payments to cooperators. Following a CWD detection, direct economic expenses from managing the disease in wild or captive populations are immediate and substantial for agencies and private individuals. For example, Wisconsin spent $32 million in the first five years of battling CWD.

To show you what some states spend fighting this disease today, I reached out to several state wildlife agencies. Before I share the numbers I gathered, recognize that nearly all these expenses must be covered by existing state wildlife agency funds and resources. Few states are receiving bonus funds from their state legislatures to fight CWD. Also, almost no federal funding is available for CWD testing and surveillance (I’ll come back to the topic of federal funding later in this article).

The following figures were provided by the respective state wildlife agencies. I’ll start on the low end of the money drain.

Drains by State

Nebraska Game and Parks spends over $32,000 annually on just the CWD samples. That cost does not include the labor necessary to collect them. 

Maryland DNR spends over $64,000 per year to sample 700 to 800 deer, and that includes over 1,500 man-hours of staff time.  That figure includes around $48,000 in personnel cost, $9,300 in lab fees, $3,200 in testing supplies, and $4,000 on expenses like fuel, disposal fees, and postage. Collectively, it costs about $90 per deer sampled.

Idaho spends about $100,000 per year on CWD detection efforts, and that was before Idaho’s first case of CWD was discovered in November 2021.

Louisiana spent $246,560 last year. That figure included around $112,000 in staff salaries and $60,000 on actual testing. Unfortunately, Louisiana detected CWD at the end of last deer season, so its annual costs are expected to rise dramatically this year. 

Most of these tremendous expenditures could have been spent on other programs and projects like habitat enhancement, hunter access, land purchases and more if CWD wasn’t on the landscape.

North Carolina averaged $204,703 and 4,281 staff hours per year from Fiscal Year 2018 to 2020, but the state confirmed its first CWD case on March 31. Fortunately, the legislature provided $500,000 for CWD surveillance this year, so the state’s CWD budget will more than double. 

Georgia, one of the few remaining states that hasn’t yet found CWD, conservatively spends about $275,000 per year on surveillance, and State Deer Biologist Charlie Killmaster expects that would triple or quadruple if CWD appears. On average, it costs the state $100 per CWD sample.

Wyoming spent over $480,000 last year, and that included 7,537 man-hours and over 49,000 vehicle miles. 

Kansas spent nearly $550,000 last year on testing samples, payments to contract collectors, testing supplies, staff time, gas, mileage, CWD education campaign and website, CWD molecular research, and a CWD epidemiological study.

Hold on, we’re just getting warmed up! The drain is getting more powerful.

Michigan spent $1.3 to $1.5 million in 2021.

Texas spent nearly $2.1 million in FY 2020.

Pennsylvania spent an average of $2.5 million per year from FY 2018 to 2020. In the last five years, the state has spent over $10.3 million on CWD efforts.

CWD doesn’t just drain budget dollars. It also steals staff time for efforts like this deer harvest testing station in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Minnesota data clearly shows how the problem is worsening, as DNR expenses related to CWD increased from $859,000 in FY 2003 to $2.8 million in 2020. Of note, the state makes dumpsters available to hunters to help limit spread of disease via harvested carcasses, and in FY 2021 that cost was $231,000.

Virginia has spent $3.4 million to date.

Wisconsin spends $3 to $3.6 million annually.  Of that figure, about $1.7 million is on testing.  The state has tested an average of 18,500 deer annually at a cost of $91.50/sample when all associated costs are considered.

Missouri spent over $3.5 million in 2021 on CWD efforts. That included nearly $2 million on labor and $1.6 million on other expenses and equipment.

This is a lot of money, obviously. But Matt Eckert, Colorado Parks & Wildlife Terrestrial Program Supervisor, put it into perspective when he told me this:

“CWD does cost state agencies who are aggressively testing a lot of money, but considering all that happens in communication, staff effort, shipping, testing, and follow-up with hunters, the peace of mind we give hunters with test results is all worth it,” Matt said. “Also, investments into monitoring, such as mandatory testing in Colorado, has set our state up for assessment of the various management actions we’ve taken to reduce CWD.”

I agree with Matt that these tremendous expenditures are all worth it. However, most of them could have been spent on other programs and projects like habitat enhancement, hunter access, land purchases and more if CWD wasn’t on the landscape. The agencies would rather devote that time and resources to those activities, and hunters certainly wish they could.

The CWD Manpower Drain

In addition to the actual dollars spent on CWD, there are hundreds of thousands of man-hours spent on it too. Mississippi spent over 21,000 staff hours (and over $1.1 million) on CWD during the past three years, while Texas spent 40,559 hours of staff time in just FY 2020. Texas Parks & Wildlife has 168 wildlife staff, so that was 241 hours per staff on just CWD, and that number includes 3,661 hours on captive deer CWD efforts, or 9% of the total. Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s aggressive CWD program racks up tens of thousands of hours as they employ 15 to 20 technicians every year statewide just to handle CWD submissions and mandatory testing. These are full-time seasonal positions that last 3 to 4 months. In addition, the state spends over $1.1 million annually at an average cost of $85 per sample.

My hat is off to all the states for their CWD work, but Missouri tops the list for increased staffing efforts. CWD was first confirmed in the Show Me State in 2011. In 2010, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s CWD efforts were nearly 7,000 man-hours equaling four full-time employees (FTEs). That jumped to 10 FTEs by 2012, 24 by 2016 and 42 by 2017! That’s more staff working on CWD in Missouri than the entire wildlife department at my old stomping grounds at the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department. 

“Frankly, we have many other deer management and research issues we’d rather put funding toward than CWD, but if we don’t get a handle on CWD soon there won’t be much reason to fund other projects and no money for any of it anyway,” said Levi Jaster, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Big Game Program Coordinator

The National Dollar Drain

So, what are the national costs of battling CWD? Scott Chiavacci of the U.S. Geologic Survey has a study under peer-review that aims to identify that number, and we’ll know his results soon. However, by far the best available source of information is an article titled The Cost of Combatting Chronic Wasting Disease: Putting a dollar amount on annual CWD expenses by state wildlife agencies by Noelle Thompson and J. Russ Mason. Noelle is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University and the Wildlife Disease Biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Russ is the Assistant Director for University Programs and External Outreach with the Michigan DNR and the Executive in Residence at Michigan State University. Their article will appear in an upcoming issue of The Wildlife Professional, but they shared with me an early glimpse.

According to Noelle and Russ:

  • As things now stand among all states, with or without CWD, the national cost of CWD surveillance and testing is $21,000,000.
  • Given what we know about CWD prevalence and spread, the most likely future is that all the Lower 48 states will become CWD-positive in the next decade, so the minimum national cost will increase to $34,560,000.
  • Given that western Canada has among the highest CWD prevalence in North America, Alaska is also likely to become a CWD-positive state at some point, bringing the total to $35,280,000.

Unfortunately, Noelle and Russ pointed out that improvements in technology aren’t likely to reduce costs in the future. CWD test kits, which run less than $30 per sample, are a very small portion of each state’s expenditures. Most expenses come from other sources like salaries and logistics. Because inflation and cost of living will only drive these other costs higher, $21,000,000 is the bare – and inadequate – minimum needed and will become insufficient as soon as this year now that Louisiana and North Carolina are added to the list of CWD-positive states.

Stopping the Drain

Remember that I said very little federal funding is available to help? The CWD Research and Management Act would help change this, and the NDA has worked closely with U.S. Representatives Kind and Thompson to pass this important legislation. In short, it would make $70 million available annually to state wildlife agencies and other institutions for CWD research and management. Passage of this bill would be a huge win for deer herds, wildlife agencies and hunters.

So, is CWD a money-making ploy for state wildlife agencies? With at least $21 million in the expense column and less than $1 million in assistance from beyond existing budgets, the answer is clear. CWD is a huge drain on state wildlife agency budgets; staff time available for habitat, hunter access, and other important projects; and staff morale. Other than disease and health officials, very few people enter the wildlife profession with a desire to spend their career working on CWD issues. This is why it’s important for deer hunters to do our part to help slow the spread of CWD so we can buy time for science to find better solutions – so we can put these funds back into more exciting projects for hunters.

About Kip Adams:

Kip Adams of Knoxville, Pennsylvania, is a certified wildlife biologist and NDA's Chief Conservation Officer. He has a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State University and a master's in wildlife from the University of New Hampshire. He's also a certified taxidermist. Before joining NDA, Kip was the deer and bear biologist for the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department. Kip and his wife Amy have a daughter, Katie, and a son, Bo.