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The Broadside (Transcript): Zombie deer and a looming conservation crisis

Anisa Khalifa: It's spring — which means it's time to be on the lookout for deer savaging your newly planted seedlings. But these animals are also a vital part of America's conservation efforts. The majority of funding for US state wildlife programs comes from hunting licenses and taxes associated with hunting, fishing and guns. This arrangement has worked well for nearly a century. But a generational decline in hunters is straining that system. And an even scarier problem is lurking in the shadows… threatening the most popular big game animal in North America.

Unidentified Speaker: You know, they're drooling and their ears are dropped… the disease essentially eats holes in their brain.

Anisa Khalifa: This week on The Broadside, correspondent Elizabeth Friend finds out how hunters and conservationists are trying to head off a looming crisis in the great outdoors.

Elizabeth Friend: The rain started just as Guy Gardner prepared to make the first cut.

Guy Gardner: What we’re gonna do is, we’re going to split it all the way up, with a knife, until we get to the breastbone, which is right here.

Elizabeth Friend: Guy and his wife Judy live on a rural highway in Harnett County, North Carolina between cornfields and the Cape Fear River. On a cloudy morning in early December, about a dozen people gathered in their yard, crowding under a tiny tent in the drizzle. At their feet, sprawled on a gray tarp: a headless white-tailed deer.

Guy Gardner: This is called a gut hook. The advantage of this, you’re less likely to poke the stomach intestines than if you take the knife and you’re cutting down there. So you try to make an incision and then the gut hook… right now it’s just going through the skin.

Elizabeth Friend: Guy and Judy are on a mission to educate as many new hunters as they can.

Judy Gardner: Who would like to volunteer to field dress this deer today? Yeah, if you want to, I want you to get in there and do it. Again, doing it is going to make so much of a difference.

Elizabeth Friend: The group is on the younger side, a diverse mix of Black, white and Latino folks here to learn the step-by-step process of transforming a deer carcass into dinner. Some are first-time students, some are mentors-in-training, like Gabor.

Gabor Szentivanyi: I’m Gabor Szentivanyi. I am initially Hungarian, became French and then ended up here in North Carolina, which is a perfect place for all my hobbies, which is fishing and hunting. I literally started at the age of 45. That’s what I find beautiful. I have no one here in the US, no one could help me with how to hunt properly. I found this association and these friendly people, and they educated me on everything the do's, the don'ts, the how different people do it, how they prefer doing and why. And I love the fact that I was able to nourish my family with something which is non-GMO, non-antibiotics, non-processed, I know everything what is in it. That's, I think, one of the best things ever, and it tastes fantastic.

Elizabeth Friend: The Gardners run this deer education program for a local conservation group, guiding aspiring hunters like Gabor through a year-long series of trainings leading up to their first hunt. When you hunt deer, the clock is always ticking. Deer season is just a few months in winter. There’s only so much daylight to hunt by. And the moment you shoot a deer, you’ve got to act fast to make the most of that meat.

Judy Gardner: Quality begins in the field. You know, it doesn’t matter that you’ve got some great meat if you’ve allowed spoilage then, because it never gets any better. So have a plan, make sure you get it cooled as quickly as you can, do it as cleanly as you can, and get it in the freezer.

Elizabeth Friend: But for Judy and Guy, there’s another clock ticking, another deadline in the back of their minds.

Guy Gardner: I'm getting older, we want to see this program continue, so the way to do it is get younger people involved. We're losing hunters and we need to find some way to recruit]

Elizabeth Friend: The decline in hunting that Guy’s worried about means more than just the loss of skills and knowledge. There’s money on the line too. Hunters and anglers pay license fees and manufacturers pay taxes on firearms and other equipment. Those fees form the backbone of funding for conservation efforts across the country. Without an influx of new hunters, or an entirely different funding model, advocates worry the modern wildlife management system could fall apart.

Deet James: Deer has always been and will always be one of the charismatic megafauna. Most people that come to me want to deer hunt.

Elizabeth Friend: Meet Deet James. He’s the hunter engagement coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. His job is to recruit and train new hunters across the state. The program he runs, and others like it across the country, are all relatively new, launched in response to a seismic generational shift.

Deet James: The greatest number of modern-day North American hunters was the baby boomer generation, those individuals that were basically born after World War II. And I'm in that class. So we peaked nationally roughly in 1975, 1980, probably eight to 10% of the population hunted. And I remember those days. The army of orange, I would call them. When we got into the 90s, and at that time, Deet James was building motor homes in central Pennsylvania, at that time, that's when states, both state and federal, were looking at participation declining. And so that's when this program started. 50 years ago, these programs and positions didn't even exist. And basically, you grew up with that baby boomer generation, and if you wanted to hunt in a family, you could because you had social support. In the 90s, again, we saw the precipitous decline.

Elizabeth Friend: By 2000, the number of hunters in North Carolina had dropped by roughly half to just 5 percent of the population. Since then, Deet says the numbers have stabilized. And recently, he’s been seeing a ray of hope.

Deet James: As that baby boomer generation has continued to fade, we also lost about two generations of hunters. Well, that generation, now the punchline is they're coming back. They didn't come from a hunting family. And they're typically between 25 and as great as 60 years old. So the shining light for me is, our numbers are relatively stable, but North Carolina is that state that has a lot of growth, a lot of jobs. And these folks are coming here interested in hunting but don't have the social support.

Elizabeth Friend: It’s Deet’s job to engage with these new hunters, help them connect with mentors, and make sure they have the tools and training to be successful. He’s finding today’s hunters have slightly different priorities than the Army of Orange in the 1970s.

Deet James: My generation, we always like the big antlers on deer. That is not an interest of the modern hunter. And we have even adjusted kinda how we talk, like it's not all about the buck. They're interested in feeding their families, they're interested in filling the freezer. And something that was very powerful for me was during COVID. I got emails from people, hey, you know, my wife or my husband lost their job. And I want to feed them, you know, I have less money for meat, you know, I want to learn how to deer hunt. And so their motivator is a deer, not a trophy buck.

Elizabeth Friend: Still, this modest uptick in new hunters isn’t likely enough to sustain the funding system that’s been in place for nearly a century. And white-tailed deer are facing new threats, including a deadly disease spreading across the country.


Unidentified Anchor: It starts with weight loss and ends with stumbling and drooling as the animal's brain tissue deteriorates. It's bad for them, it's bad for hunting, it could even be bad for human beings.

Elizabeth Friend: Their future is uncertain, but it’s not the first time deer have faced an existential threat in America… and bounced back.

Kip Adams: White-tailed deer are one of the largest conservation success stories in our history.

Elizabeth Friend: More on this after the break.

The history of the white-tailed deer is deeply intertwined with the history of America.

Kip Adams: Even you know, our monetary system, a $1 bill, we still call that a buck and that comes directly from deer hides. A buck, you know a hide of a deer that was used for revenue at that time.

Elizabeth Friend: That’s Kip Adams. He’s a wildlife biologist and chief conservation officer for the National Deer Association. He educates hunters, landowners and wildlife professionals about deer biology. He’s also an avid hunter, and advocates for deer hunters across the country. Kip says hunting by humans has been the determining factor in how deer populations rise or fall for quite a while.

Kip Adams: Two thousand years ago Native Americans were killing 4 to 7 million deer a year in the U.S. What that means is, for at least the last 2000 years, humans have been the dominant predator of deer.

Elizabeth Friend: Deer numbers rose in the 1500s after European colonization decimated Native American communities, then fell precipitously as settlers moved west.

Kip Adams: If you look back in the seventeen hundreds and eighteen hundreds where we had the U.S. population expanding westward, you know, across what we know today as the United States, they need food, you know they need skins for clothing and for trade items. And what they found is, you know, a very abundant resource for the taking.

If you look at historical accounts, they felt that, you know, that it was always going to be there, that there was no way to deplete that. But, through market hunting we started to see even some of these hunters realizing suddenly there were few deer left. They had to continue westward to find more deer and in each step of the way they would find them, but then through hunting you know they would become depleted so they would continue that westward expansion and and through that they realized that they were depleting a resource that in many cases was not replenishing itself.

Elizabeth Friend: By 1900, market hunting had nearly wiped out one of North America’s most iconic species.

Kip Adams: Because we were killing so many deer, certainly for the meat but mostly for their skins, it drove populations to near extinction. There were, we estimate, around maybe only 200 to 300,000 deer left in the entire U.S.

Elizabeth Friend: In North Carolina, there were just 10,000 left.

Kip Adams: As those populations started to become depleted and become more scarce, you just had an increasing base of hunters recognizing that and then finally fighting to do something to put a protection in place so that we didn't deplete all of those deer numbers.

Elizabeth Friend: Congress passed the Lacey Act in 1900, banning interstate traffic in wild animals and putting an end to market hunting. The Pittman-Robertson Act followed in 1937, directing taxes from gun sales to state wildlife management programs. These regulations were welcomed by many hunters who wanted to protect game species they feared losing entirely. At the time, deer were so scarce throughout the Southeast that states undertook a massive effort to relocate them from the few parts of the country where they were still thriving.

Kip Adams: From the north, Wisconsin and Michigan sent a lot of deer to the Southeast to help replenish our deer herds. These are deer that were captured in many cases, put on a train and then shipped to the South and then released.

Elizabeth Friend: North Carolina’s Pisgah Game Preserve had a relatively large number of deer. Some were trapped and sent to restock populations in Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio and Indiana. And for decades, state wildlife officials continued to capture deer in Appalachia and release them across the rest of North Carolina in order to build up local herds. These efforts stretched into recent history. The final release took place along the coast in Dare County in 1987. These days, there are roughly a million deer in North Carolina. And across the country…

Kip Adams: Today we have somewhere around 28 to 30 million white-tails. It's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride over time for them. But given the game laws that we put in place in the early nineteen hundreds and all of the wildlife professionals today that help manage those resources, we have very stable deer populations, very healthy deer populations in many areas, and across most of the range, really high numbers of white-tailed deer.

Elizabeth Friend: This North American model, where hunting fees and equipment taxes support conservation programs, is widely regarded as a huge success. It helped bring iconic species like the white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and the wood duck back from the brink of extinction, and today, it provides roughly three quarters of the funding for state wildlife programs across the country. That money goes to pay for land acquisition, habitat restoration, research, and managing wild birds and mammal populations.

Kip Adams: Most state wildlife agencies do not receive funding from their legislature to run the wildlife programs. The vast majority of that funding comes from Pittman-Robertson funds and the sale of hunting licenses.

Elizabeth Friend: But some say this model is out of date. Critics argue this system prioritizes hunters, who make up a small fraction of the general public, and is unsustainable given demographic shifts. Alternative models might include a mix of hunting fees, sales taxes, new outdoor recreation fees, or payments from companies extracting natural resources on federal lands. Still, it’s not clear that there’s enough political will at the state or federal level to enact sweeping changes to the long-standing funding system. Humans almost hunted white-tailed deer to extinction in the U.S., before taking action to help them to rebound and thrive. Whether humans can intervene to save deer from the newest threat stalking herds in North America remains to be seen.


Unidentified Anchor: And a story now about chronic wasting disease, which is affecting deer, elk and moose across the country. It's caused by something called a prion, a type of protein…

Elizabeth Friend: When zombies appear in movies and TV, they spark panic, violence, and mayhem. But when they show up in your backyard in real life, you might just feel really, really bad for them.

Kip Adams: You know, they're drooling and their ears are dropped… the disease essentially eats holes in their brain.

Elizabeth Friend: Chronic wasting disease is the stuff of nightmares. It’s a neurological infection similar to mad cow disease that infects deer, moose, and elk.

Kip Adams: Chronic wasting disease or CWD is one of the single largest threats to the future of deer and deer hunting. In a nutshell CWD is 100% fatal to all deer. There's no vaccine and there's no cure.

Elizabeth Friend: And it’s contagious.

Kip Adams: Deer will shed the infectious materials that cause the disease. They shed those in their urine and their feces and their saliva, blood, semen, other ways. So a deer that has it appears completely normal but interacts with other deer, can then infect those other deer.

Elizabeth Friend: Infected deer might not show any signs of illness for up to two years, but during that time, they are shedding prions, a type of infectious protein. And those prions are incredibly hard to get rid of.

Kip Adams: Deer at Colorado State University's Research Pens had the disease, and essentially what they did was they removed all the deer, dug out six inches of soil from the facility, brought in new soil, cleaned the facility, left it vacant for a year, brought in new deer and the deer immediately got CWD from what was left at the facility. So if we can't even decontaminate a site by removing soil and cleaning, it lets us know you know we really have a fight on our hands.

Elizabeth Friend: CWD prions can survive forest fires and deep freezes. They are resistant to alcohol, formaldehyde, and several types of radiation. Some research shows a strong bleach solution might be able to deactivate small amounts of prions on tools, but there’s currently no way to remove it from the environment once it starts to spread.

Elizabeth Friend: Knowing how to properly handle a deer carcass takes on new importance once CWD is detected in a region. It’s something Judy and Guy Gardner stress repeatedly throughout their workshop in Harnett County.

Guy Gardner: The head, the brain and the spinal cord are where most of the prions that cause CWD are focused in, so you don’t want to transport those to a different location.

Elizabeth Friend: CWD first showed up in 1967, in captive deer at a research facility in Colorado, and in wild animals in the 1980s. Since then, it’s spread to 32 states and parts of Canada. North Carolina saw its first recorded case in 2022, and it’s now been detected in 7 counties. This triggered new regulations restricting hunters from moving deer out of impacted areas and neighboring counties, in hopes of slowing the spread of the disease throughout the state.

For the Gardners, this change has cost them something important. For many years they helped gather donated venison to distribute to regional food programs, but that’s not feasible under the new rules. Instead of collecting meat for the hungry, Guy now collects body parts for testing by state wildlife officials.

Guy Gardner: So this deer and all the ones we’re going to use, we’ve taken their samples for chronic wasting disease. I’ve got six freezers around the county, and hunters can bring their deer heads and put them in the freezers, they just put a label on there and with a tag on it in a bag, drop it in there, I drive around and pick it up, and then we go and collect the samples out of them.

Elizabeth Friend: Hunters can get an email or text about the status of their deer once testing is complete. The Gardners urge their students to process the meat and stick it in the freezer until they get the all clear. Guy says he won’t eat any deer that tests positive.

Guy Gardner: That’s just my decision and my wife’s decision, and more of the hunters that come through are talking about doing the same thing.

Elizabeth Friend: It’s not yet clear what, if any, impact CWD might have on humans. Some testing shows mice and monkeys can contract the disease, but the research is not conclusive. While more research is underway, public health officials recommend avoiding any deer that looks sick or tests positive. Like the Gardners, Kip Adams from the National Deer Association is concerned about the spread of chronic wasting disease.

Kip Adams: So this is a big issue because if it ever was shown that this disease can impact humans, and fortunately there's never been a human case of it, but if it did, we would have a lot of people stop hunting because they couldn't eat the meat.

Elizabeth Friend: And the last thing he wants is for people to stop hunting deer.

Kip Adams: If suddenly we couldn't eat that meat, or people were choosing not to because of this disease, well then the wildlife management system that we have today would fall apart and it's not just deer that would suffer, every other wildlife species on the landscape would.

Elizabeth Friend: This doomsday scenario may or may not pan out. But in the meantime, advocates are focused on training the next generation of hunters, in an effort to preserve hunting traditions, shore up funding for wildlife conservation, and limit the spread of chronic wasting Disease by keeping deer populations in check.

Anisa Khalifa: This episode of The Broadside was produced by Elizabeth Friend. Our editor is Jerad Walker and our executive producer is Wilson Sayre. If you’d like to know more about the efforts to recruit the next generation of hunters in North Carolina, we’ve dropped a link to a story by WUNC contributor Zachary Turner in the episode show notes.

The Broadside is a production of WUNC–North Carolina Public Radio. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or share it with a friend! I’m Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening, y'all. We'll be back next week.