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January 30, 2023

The cost of chronic wasting disease as it continues to spread isn't just measured in loss of deer and elk lives, it's also measured by the money people spend--or lose--dealing with it. Exactly how much money this fatal disease costs on a national scale was unclear until a recent USGS study tallied the numbers.

Chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease that afflicts deer and elk, has been a growing ecological problem for over five decades. Since its discovery in Colorado in 1967, the disease has continued to spread among wild and captive populations of cervids — the collective term used for deer and elk species. Today, chronic wasting disease is found in over half of US states, with the list of affected regions and states continuing to grow.

An emaciated elk with drooping head and large antlers
A bull elk with chronic wasting disease at Wind Cave National Park.  The emaciated appearance and drooping ears are characteristic of latter stages of infection.

Even as it spreads, we are still learning more about the effects — and costs — of this disease. USGS and others have been studying chronic wasting disease and its ecological impact, but this disease doesn’t only affect wildlife and ecosystems.

What’s largely missing is a better understanding of the disease's economic impacts to government agencies, businesses and individuals connected to cervids, like hunters and farmers. Until recently, studies of chronic wasting disease’s economic impact were limited in scope to a few specific states or a limited number of government agencies. As a result, its financial effects on a national scale were unknown.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey study offers the first nationwide understanding of the financial cost of chronic wasting disease in the US.

Spoiler alert! It’s costing tens of millions of dollars per year—and that’s a conservative estimate.

This study establishes the best available baseline to date on the overall cost of this fatal wildlife disease. The author sought all available economic data related to chronic wasting disease from federal agencies, all state natural resources and agriculture agencies in the continental US who manage wild or farmed cervids, the hunting industry, cervid farmers and others.

It turns out that both the costs and the stakeholders facing these costs are diverse. State and federal agencies that regulate wild or farmed cervids, Tribal Nations, cervid farmers and the hunting industry (think outfitters, land leasers, taxidermists and meat processors) are examples of stakeholders who may be financially affected by the disease.

Direct costs linked to the disease may include personnel time, sample processing, travel expenditures, personal protective equipment, management activities such as sharpshooting or culling farmed animals, regulations enforcement, outreach activities, veterinary expenses and reduced product sales.

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An adult and a child in camouflage clothing and with hunting gear sit on a hillside.
Deer hunting is culturally and economically important in the United States.

“This is the most comprehensive tally of the costs of chronic wasting disease we have,” said study author Scott Chiavacci, a wildlife ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, “and one of the big takeaways is that we still have so much more to learn about how it is financially affecting local communities and businesses connected to wild and farmed cervids.”

Data on the chronic wasting disease-related costs to federal and state agencies were more readily available than costs to other stakeholders because these agencies more carefully track their spending, some of which is publicly available. In contrast, getting data on related costs from non-governmental sources, like the cervid farming industry, hunting industry or timber companies who lease land for deer hunting, was more difficult. This may be because cost data are not recorded or have not been detected in a measurable way by certain affected industries.

The study found that the federal government spent over \$280 million on chronic wasting disease over the 21-year period from 2000-2021. Most of that spending was under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which included over \$16 million in indemnity payments to cervid farmers.

In addition, state natural resources agencies spent over $25 million in the 2020 fiscal year alone, showing quite a financial burden also falls on states dealing with this disease. Agencies from states where cases of chronic wasting disease have been confirmed spent on average eight times more dealing with the disease than states that have not detected it, making a strong case for investing in disease prevention.

Beyond impacts to government agencies and large businesses, chronic wasting disease may be affecting local and regional economies, but we don’t have good data yet on those costs. In small communities, a confirmed new case could have financial consequences for small businesses, like taxidermists and meat processors. Those consequences could vary in severity and wouldn’t necessarily be lasting or entirely negative.

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From behind, a person in a bright red jacket looks through a camera viewfinder at a wintry scene with snow on the ground and
Wildlife viewing is one of the many ways that cervids have economic and cultural value in the United States.

The study also attempted to determine if sales of hunting licenses or deer and elk tags changed in response to the detection of chronic wasting disease in the vicinity, as a way to explore whether the disease influences hunter behavior. Revenue from hunting license sales supports the operations of many state natural resources agencies, and could point to possible economic implications.

Unfortunately, no such data existed.

Another huge gap in knowledge is how chronic wasting disease may influence the economic, cultural and spiritual connection Tribal Nations have with cervids. Although some Tribal Nations receive funding to address the disease from the federal government, there are no good data on its socioeconomic impacts to Tribes available.

For example, cervids are a source of healthy food for Tribal and non-Tribal subsistence hunters, especially in areas lacking easy access to grocery stores. It is unknown, how chronic wasting disease impacts food availability among Tribal members or how it affects Tribal cultural practices, such as the use of brains in the tanning of hides or the sale or trade of cervid-derived goods among Tribal members.

For now, the study, titled “The economic costs of chronic wasting disease in the United States,” offers a good baseline on how much chronic wasting disease is costing us nationally and a roadmap for future studies needed to understand of the full economic impact of this disease in the US.

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