State officials want hunters to shoot more deer in northeastern Lower Michigan – a lot more. Infected deer in this area spread a disease called bovine tuberculosis. It can kill cows, and it can be passed to people through unpasteurized milk.
The state has already spent more than $150 million trying to eradicate the disease over the past two decades, but infection rates have spiked among the deer population in recent years, and several cattle herds have been newly infected.
A shocking phone call
In April 2015, Jeremy Werth got the phone call that every dairy farmer in this area dreads. Werth runs a farm with his father and brother about 20 minutes west of Alpena. A state veterinarian was on the line, telling him that some of his cows were infected with bovine tuberculosis.
Jeremy Werth says it was a shock.
“There were no signs of tuberculosis – healthy as horses,” Werth says.
About 80 of Werth’s 600 animals tested positive for TB. Werth says the state also found a sick deer in the woods behind the farm. Because of the high numbers of infected cattle, Werth and his family decided to do the unthinkable: have each cow euthanized.
“When you think of that animal having to be euthanized and destroyed to look for a disease in them,” Werth says, “it makes you very sad. It tears your heart right out.”
Werth’s family has been here long enough that there’s a road named after them - Werth Road, just east of the farm. When bovine TB became a problem two decades ago, the family took steps to protect the farm. For one, the animals were no longer allowed to eat in the pasture. They were confined.
But state officials later determined it was most likely a deer coming onto the property that passed the disease to the cows. Deer and cattle can transmit TB to each other at the feeding trough through saliva or their breath.
Jeremy Werth says it’s clear that deer are the problem.
“As dairy producers we have to manage our cattle herd,” Werth says. “The solution to the problem is we have to manage the deer herd.”
DNR says solution is to kill more deer
Dozens of farmers have dealt with infections in this area since the 1990s. Most cases have been found within four counties: Montmorency, Alpena, Oscoda and Alcona. The landscape’s cedar swamps, forests and abundant farms make it a prime habitat for white-tailed deer.
Russ Mason, the wildlife division chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says the state has been able to bring the percentage of infected deer down over the years, but TB has stuck around at low levels.
Mason says it’s time to try something different.
“I guarantee if we keep doing what we’re doing we’re going to see exactly what we’ve got and things are not going to change,” Mason says.
Mason says the answer is to thin the deer herd by tens of thousands and keep the population down for decades. But that’s difficult for many hunters to accept.
“There are folks up there that are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on their properties for deer hunting,” Mason says. “And the idea of essentially destroying the deer resource on their property in the cause of disease eradication is very difficult for them.”
Antler point restrictions
The DNR wants hunters to kill more does to shrink the herd. To do that, the state is proposing something called antler point restrictions for all hunters in this area. People could only shoot bucks that have three or more points on one of their antlers.
The hope is that if young bucks are off limits hunters will take more does instead. The reward would be a larger population of older bucks, with larger racks.
Mason says it’s not certain this will work but it’s worth a try.
“We have to do something in order for us to increase interest in deer hunting and to get more deer shot in the northeast Lower Peninsula,” Mason says.
Antler point restrictions are popular in some places in Michigan. But outdoor writer and hunter Richard P. Smith says mandatory antler point restrictions would be a mistake in the TB zone.
“All it takes is for hunters being forced to pass up one deer that has the disease to show the impact those regulations have,” Smith says. “They should be doing the opposite. They should be eliminating all antler point restrictions to maximize the opportunity for hunters to take more bucks and more does.”
The state’s Natural Resources Commission will vote on antler point restrictions at a meeting later this month.
‘Do we want to get to the bottom of the disease is the question’
Jeremy Werth is glad the state is trying to get deer numbers down, but he questions whether the state has the political will power to fix the problem.
He says in Minnesota officials dealt with an outbreak of TB by killing off the entire deer herd.
“Do we want to get to the bottom of the disease is the question,” Werth says. “If that’s the case and you’ve got a committee of people that say we want to get to the bottom of the disease, that’s what needs to be done. I think the question here is, there’s probably too much value put on that deer and that won’t happen.”
State officials say killing off the herd is not feasible in northeastern Lower Michigan for political and practical reasons. The TB zone here is much larger than the one in Minnesota.
The state does give out permits to landowners to shoot deer on their property out of season. Sometimes professional sharpshooters are called in, which is what happened on Jeremy Werth’s farm after the outbreak. Werth says many of his neighbors weren’t happy about it and rumors spread around town exaggerating how many deer were killed.
“When people just jump to the conclusion that a dairy farmer in the area is shooting all the deer, they’re missing the whole story because ultimately what we are doing can actually help the deer herd in the area,” Werth says.
In 2015, Werth’s 600 cows were all destroyed. Werth says it was devastating. His family was paid an indemnity to cover some of the costs of losing animals, but today his family’s farm has about half as many animals as before.
And the threat is still there.
This past April, a cattle herd tested positive in the county south of Werth’s farm.
NOTE: A version of this story played on the Environment Report on June 29.