For decades, deer hunters have used deer urine and other scent-based products to lure bucks into range for a shot. Generations of hunters have reached into their coat pockets, pulled out small bottles of often foul-smelling fluid and dribbled it on the ground and vegetation. Sometimes without spilling it on themselves, sometimes not.
The surge in popularity of bowhunting brought the use of deer-based scents to the forefront. We now have a multi-million-dollar industry based on deer pee. More than 60 companies produce and sell deer urine- and gland-based attractants in one form or another. Unfortunately, everything is not rosy in the world of cervid secretions.
The CWD Demon Wildlife biologists have known about chronic wasting disease (CWD) since 1967, when it was discovered in Colorado. Most scientists agree it is a contagious, always fatal disease of the cervid (deer) family. White-tailed and mule deer, elk, moose and caribou are at risk from this insidious killer.
Biologists tell us CWD is not spread from bacteria or a virus, but by a tenacious little bugger called a prion. Prions are infectious, single proteins that cause the sponge-like degeneration of the brain in infected animals. Scientists now think prions are so durable they can survive long periods of time and withstand many decontamination methods. Scientists tell us prions are able to “bind” to different types of soil and plants; CWD may spread in this way and through animal-to-animal contact.
The authors of a study published in 2004, “Environmental Sources of Prion Transmission in Mule Deer,” state: “The ability of the CWD agent to persist in contaminated environments for more than two years may further increase the probability of transmission and protract epidemic dynamics.” Such findings lead biologists like Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, to conclude, “The evidence would indicate that these prions may last for years and potentially for decades.”
Scientists seem to agree that prions are “shed” through feces, urine and saliva, but then it gets tricky. “Unlike in most other prion diseases, in CWD, prions are shed in urine and feces, which most likely contributes to the horizontal transmission within and between cervid species,” write Theodore R. John, Hermann M. Hermann M. Schätzl and Sabine Gilch in another study published in 2013.
Biologists agree CWD is spreading across the country and is a major threat to our deer herds. But many scientists do not agree whether a hunter using natural deer urine is a valid threat to spread CWD.
By early 2016, CWD had been found in either captive and/or free-ranging cervids in 24 states, three Canadian provinces, South Korea and Norway. In response, some state wildlife agencies have banned the use of natural deer urine and other scents taken from deer. The list includes Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Virginia (also, Canadian provinces Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba). Pennsylvania prohibits the use of deer urine in three “disease management areas.”
Virginia banned the use of natural deer urine in 2015. “The first item the urine-ban naysayers will mention is research that suggests CWD transmission by urine is a low risk,” said Knox. “Low risk is not zero risk. What they fail to mention is the rest of the story. The infectious agents that cause CWD (prions) are shed by CWD-infected deer in urine, saliva and feces, and saliva and feces are reported to be higher risk than urine. Deer urine is collected from captive deer by housing these deer on grates or slatted floors, and any other fluids shed by these deer (saliva, feces, etc.) are also collected.”
Still, those in the scent and deer-farming arena believe banning the use of natural urine is too extreme when no proof yet exists it is a threat to wild deer.
“I feel that the risk that scent urine poses in transmitting CWD to areas where it has not already been reported is incredibly small,” said Dr. Nicholas Haley, DVM Ph.D., with Midwestern University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “Urine from CWD-infected deer may have very low, barely detectable levels of the infectious prion, although it only seems to appear in urine later in the course of disease—when deer are clinically ill with the disease.” Haley added that apart from the low inherent risk urine from positive animals may carry, the scent-urine industry is making reasoned and broad efforts to minimize the risk of their deer becoming infected in the first place—including creating “closed herds” (no new animals in or out), double fencing to prevent transmission from wild deer and regular veterinary inspections. The scent-urine industry also is considering a project with other trade industries to work with researchers to develop a urine test for screening their products.
“As a company, if the science was there we would be the first to stop selling natural urines to help protect this natural resource, the whitetail deer.” said Terry Rohm, marketing director for Tink’s Lures in Covington, Ga. “For the last two years we have researched, talked to biologists and worked with other competitors to evaluate the information available. We have spoken with different state directors to let them know that the urine facilities we collect from are in the CWD-monitored program that is regulated by both the Department of Agriculture and the DNR. To be in the program you have to be free from CWD for five years. These are the only suppliers we will purchase from. Tink’s and some of our competitors are currently working with our different suppliers to come up with other guidelines on our own to do our part.”
Enter Synthetic Urine The disagreement has increased interest in synthetic urine and scents, which many hunters have concocted themselves for years. Nowadays, several well-known lure makers offer synthetic urine products. One current commercial offering calls for (I am not making this up) the hunter to mix his (or her) own urine with the product of the company to attract deer.
“I personally think both natural urine and synthetics have their place,” said Rohm. “Matter of fact, my favorite early-season lure is our Tink’s Power Scrape, and it’s synthetic.”
“Hunters overwhelmingly prefer the real thing,” said Sam Bergeson, president of Wildlife Research Center Inc. “It would be hard to argue that, but through decades of research and field-testing, we have come up with some pretty good [synthetic] stuff. Just like scents containing real deer urine, there can be a big difference in the performance.
“A good synthetic urine-type scent will likely contain some of the same chemicals and compounds found in real urine,” continued Burgeson, “but many key compounds in real urine are not commercially available or practical to replicate in a lab. Finding acceptable replacements or filling those gaps gets very difficult and complex. To succeed at this, it requires an extensive knowledge and background in making scent products.”
There is no doubt the synthetic products I tested for this report attracted deer. At random locations in an area where I knew deer were present, I set up trail cameras and applied synthetic urines: The cameras revealed deer visiting the sites, some with their nose directly on the area sprayed. One small buck appeared 14 minutes after the scent was placed in front of the camera.
“I have been field-testing this product for more than three years,” said David Healy of his Wind Pro synthetic deer scents. “Every time when I’m hunting or filming and I see these mature whitetails coming into the Doe Estrus or Dominant Buck they seem relaxed, curious and interested. The deer will actually lick the powder right off the licking branch before they urinate on the scrape.”
There may be several advantages to using synthetic urine, besides the obvious: remaining legal. Synthetic urine may have a much longer shelf life than natural deer urine, for one, and some brands in gel form may actually crystallize then reconstitute when exposed to moisture.