With the start of fall, hunters are heading to the woods and fields. There’s so much more to hunting than simply grabbing a bow or gun and marching out into the woods to shoot.

Hunters take pride in preparing a strategy to be in the right place at the right time. As someone who’s spent hours bird and deer hunting, I understand what it means to hunt in Wisconsin.

Here in western Wisconsin, deer hunting is more than just a season — it’s a way of life. There’s a sense of comradery between hunters while enjoying the fresh air, sounds and anticipation of seeing wildlife in their element.

Deer hunting is critical to our rural economy. Hunters from around the world travel to western Wisconsin for the chance to hunt here. Just a few miles down the road from my home, Buffalo County is world-renowned for its white-tailed deer population. Hunters build their cabins and purchase property around the 31st Senate District for the sole purpose of deer hunting in this prime region.

Imagine if this all disappeared. It’s hard to believe, but it’s possible if we ignore chronic wasting disease (CWD).

CWD has been reported in other states, and has slowly spread through Wisconsin. The first case of CWD in Wisconsin was confirmed in 2002, but it’s now reached 56 counties, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

In the last few years, we’ve seen an accelerated spread of CWD throughout our state — we need to take CWD seriously and take steps to stop the spread. CWD is a prion mutation disease affecting the brain of infected cervids, such as deer, elk and moose.

The Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance describes uncoordinated movement, abnormal behavioral changes, loss of appetite and thinness as symptoms of CWD. Deer can transmit CWD through bodily fluids, especially when sharing food and water sources.

We know prions don’t die with the animal. In fact, as a carcass decays, prions will persist in the soil and attach to plant roots that other animals will feed on. Researchers don’t know exactly how long prions can live; it could be decades.

We must take immediate action and recognize long-term solutions to preserve Wisconsin’s hunting tradition. Hunters are our state’s eyes and ears, and they are the ones who stand to lose the most if we can’t stop CWD.

Here are two things we must do this hunting season:

1. Hunters need to test their deer. It’s free and it’s easy. Just find one of the DNR’s many easily accessible kiosks to leave a sample of your deer. If we are going to effectively fight CWD, we need to understand infection rates and where the disease has spread.

Last week, the DNR ordered hunters to test their deer during the upcoming gun deer hunting season in six western Wisconsin townships because deer in the region tested positive for CWD in 2018. Don’t fear learning if your deer was infected. Fear the future loss of our hunting heritage altogether.

2. Hunters must properly dispose of deer carcasses. Leaving a carcass in the woods or dumping the carcass in a field only adds to the risk of CWD spreading further.

The DNR has designated dumpsters to properly dispose of potentially-infected deer. The carcasses will be transported to landfills.

To make these dumpsters more accessible, I co-sponsored Senate Bill 325, which would assist County Deer Advisory Councils in covering the cost of the deer carcass disposal program. Contact your local County Deer Advisory Council (CDAC) or DNR office to locate the nearest carcass disposal dumpster.

Do your part to stop the spread of CWD this hunting season. CWD continues to threaten our deer herd and the future of hunting. Wisconsin is not alone. Thanks to Gov. Tony Evers and DNR Secretary Preston Cole, Wisconsin has formed a coalition of other states to coordinate CWD research, policy and eradication efforts.

As we learn more about CWD and understand where it is affecting our herd, we have a chance to fight it. If hunters, regulators and local hunting groups work together, we can stop CWD. Like the folks thoughtfully preparing their hunting strategy this season, Wisconsin must also prepare a plan to stop the spread of CWD.

It’s up to us to take action for the next generation of hunters.