Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Wisconsin Wildlife
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Gilbertson, M.L.J., E.E. Brandell, M. Pinkerton, N. Meaux, M. Hunsaker, D. Jarosinski, W. Ellarson, D.P. Walsh, D.J. Storm, W.C. Turner. 2022. Cause of death, pathology, and chronic wasting disease status of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) mortalities in Wisconsin, Journal of Wildlife Diseases,


White-tailed deer (WTD; Odocoileus virginianus) are a critical species for ecosystem function and wildlife management. As such, studies of cause-specific mortality among WTD have long been used to understand population dynamics. However, detailed pathological information is rarely documented for free-ranging WTD, especially in regions with a high prevalence of chronic wasting disease (CWD). This leaves a critical gap in understanding how CWD affects the prevalence of other disease processes or comorbidities which may subsequently alter broader population dynamics. In this study, we investigated unknown mortalities among GPS or VHF collared WTD in southwestern Wisconsin, an area of high CWD prevalence. We tested for associations between CWD and other disease processes and used a network approach to test for clusters of co-occurrences of disease processes. Predation and infectious disease were top causes of death, with high prevalence of CWD (42.4%; n = 245) and pneumonia (51.2%; n = 168) in our sample. CWD prevalence increased with age, before decreasing among older individuals, with more older females than males in our sample. Females were more likely to be CWD positive, and while this was not statistically significant when accounting for age, females were significantly more likely to die with end-stage CWD than were males and may consequently be an underrecognized source of CWD transmission. Diagnosis of CWD was associated with emaciation, atrophy of marrow fat, and ectoparasitism (lice, ticks). Occurrences of severe infectious disease pathologies clustered together (e.g., pneumonia, CWD), as compared to non-infectious or low severity processes (e.g., sarcocystosis). However, pneumonia cases were not fully explained by CWD status. With the prevalence of CWD increasing across North America, our results highlight the critical importance of understanding the role of CWD in favoring or maintaining disease processes of importance for deer population health and dynamics.