Note: Adam Heggenstaller is Editorial Director for Game & Fish Magazines
I hadjust begun to ascend the red oak with my climbing stand when I heard the shuffle of leaves behind me. Turning toward the old logging road, I immediately caught the glint of a white antler. Nose to the ground, the buck was following the scent trail I had laid just minutes before on the way to my stand tree. The scent wick I had drug behind me now hung in a maple sapling 23 yards away. The buck was heading straight toward it.
Problem was, my bow lay at the base of the oak, beneath my climber, separated from my grip by 20-some feet of cord. I was 5 feet up the tree, and I didn’t think there was any chance of getting the bow into my hands, let alone nocking an arrow and drawing, without the buck busting me. But I had to try.
The buck was about 60 yards away when I began pulling on the cord, slowly at first but more feverishly as the 7-point closed the distance. He paused at 35 yards to lick his nose then turned his head to gaze down the low hill. Keeping my eyes on the buck, I felt tension on the cord and heard a rustle as the bow left the ground. It was in the stand before the deer resumed his march.
Now the buck was broadside, inches from the wick. The scent seemed to have put him in a trance, but when I pulled an arrow from the quiver, he noticed the motion. Instead of bounding away, the buck made a tight half-circle around the sapling while I found my anchor point. He died within sight 20 seconds later, the scent of an unfound doe in estrus still filling his nostrils.
That November morning in Pennsylvania two decades ago wasn’t the first or last time I used doe urine to lure a buck in range, but sadly I can no longer employ it in the area where I took that deer. Following the detection of chronic wasting disease (CWD), the Pennsylvania Game Commission banned the use of deer urine in multiple counties (or parts of them) comprising four Disease Management Areas. Since 2012, the urine ban has expanded to include more than 8,000 square miles in 25 counties.
Pennsylvania isn’t alone in citing CWD as the reason for deer-urine bans. Virginia banned the use of urine-based scents in 2015, noting “the infectious proteins (i.e., prions) known to transmit CWD have been found in the urine, feces, and saliva of infected [deer].” Eleven more states prohibit their use, either statewide or in some areas, and others have considered it.
While on the surface a deer-urine ban may appear to be a logical way to prevent the spread of CWD, as a hunter I want to see the science.
I am not aware of any scientific study to date that shows a direct link between urine-based scents used by hunters and the disease. A study often referenced when claiming a connection between urine and CWD, “Infectious Prions in the Saliva and Blood of Deer with Chronic Wasting Disease,” by Dr. Candace K. Mathiason, et al., shows evidence of CWD infection in one of three fawns that were each orally inoculated with 50 ml of urine and feces from CWD-infected deer. These three fawns were forced to drink more than 10 teaspoons of urine and feces over three days, yet none showed signs of CWD after six months. (During the study one fawn died of “natural causes” unrelated to CWD.)
Furthermore, as Dr. James Kroll and others point out in “Current Scientific Knowledge About CWD,” a 2011 study by Dr. Nicholas J. Haley showed prions are shed in very low numbers in feces and urine, and they pose the lowest risk of CWD transmission. In fact, it takes 33 gallons of infected urine to equal the number of prions present in 1 gram of infected brain tissue.
Even so, for years scent manufacturers have adhered to stringent standards to ensure their herds and products remain CWD free. Many have committed to additional monitoring through the Archery Trade Association’s Deer Protection Program.
Now, two companies—Wildlife Research Center and Tink’s—are subjecting their deer-urine products to a testing protocol known as the RT-QuIC process, which detects—or confirms the absence of—the prion that causes CWD. The RT-QuIC (real-time quaking-induced conversion) test was recently developed to detect the prion responsible for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, and the deer-scent manufacturers partnered with researchers at CWD Evolution to adapt the test to CWD prion detection.
Wildlife Research Center and Tink’s have already begun testing their urine using the protocol. Beginning in 2020, bottles will carry the “RT-QuIC Tested” logo on their labels.
The deer-scent industry has come up with a scientific way to prove urine-based products are not an agent for CWD transmission. I hope future decisions from game agencies regarding the use of urine-based scents, including repeals of present bans, come through similarly sound science.