Cornering deer disease in wild

aAs deer hunting season takes hold around the country, hunters will once again worry about Chronic Wasting Disease, a deer and elk ailment that has been found in 25 states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

As states consider regulations to try to stem the spread of CWD, a new court ruling in Missouri offers guidance while eliminating some common fears about the disease.

CWD is a yet-incurable disease with a long incubation period, first detected in free-ranging deer 30 years ago in Colorado before popping up elsewhere across the U.S. and Canada. People are not affected by CWD, but there’s concern that the spread of the disease will ultimately reduce deer populations, which have exploded in the last century.

In Missouri, regulators grappled with how to slow the disease. Officials with the state Department of Conservation opted to target deer farms, which as the name suggests are facilities where deer can be raised for venison or for private hunting ranches. The move came after some much-publicized incidents where CWD was detected on a farm or ranch.

The Department of Conservation proposed banning imports of deer and mandating new fencing requirements, purportedly to prevent escapes from deer facilities. Deer farmers sued, and the case went to trial. Last month, they prevailed, and the court’s ruling against the Department of Conservation dispels myths about CWD.

The first issue was whether regulators were right to focus on farmed deer as opposed to free-ranging deer. Here the court noted that a government witness “admitted that free-ranging cervids pose a greater risk of spreading CWD-causing prions than enclosed cervids” (that is, deer or elk) on deer farms.

The court next looked at the costly new fencing regulations and found them unjustified. The new fencing standards were “not based on documentation of any existing problems” but instead based on “anecdotal, second-hand reports.”

Lastly, the court found that Missouri’s ban on farms importing deer was arbitrary and hypocritical. Deer farms that want to move deer across state lines must be a part of a federal herd certification program managed by the USDA. That program requires years of CWD testing in order to be eligible to import deer. While Missouri was essentially banning farmers from using this program, it actually was importing free ranging elk into the state that were not subject to the strict protocol required by USDA for farmed deer and elk. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Based on the clear evidence of government overreach — and the constitutional right of farmers to farm and ranch — the court ruled that the Missouri regulations didn’t pass muster.

So what should states do to fight CWD? Focus on free-ranging deer. This is admittedly a tougher problem. While it’s easy to track and test deer in closed facilities, deer in the wild can move long distances. States currently test hunter-harvested and road-killed deer for CWD. However, the present system has a flaw: In general, states test less than 1 percent of their deer populations for CWD. That figure needs to increase.

Here’s why. Earlier this year, CWD was found in Arkansas for the first time. Then, upon subsequent tests, it was found in more and more animals. Experts suspect that CWD has been in Arkansas for at least a decade. CWD could’ve been found earlier if state authorities had been testing more rigorously for it. States also need to ban the movement of whole deer carcasses by hunters, which is another vector for accidental spread of the disease.

At the same time, the fact that CWD was in Arkansas for years with no apparent effect on the deer population is something to consider. CWD, because it has an incubation period that can stretch for years, isn’t likely to be killing deer. In Missouri, the court noted there was no evidence any deer in the state had died of CWD; animals that tested positive for CWD died of other causes and were later tested. In fact, in states where CWD has been detected, from the Dakotas to Utah, deer populations have been booming in recent years. In the early 1900s there were only an estimated 500,000 white-tailed deer in the country; today there are 32 million.

This is especially noteworthy given that other deer disease, such as epizootic hemorrhagic disease, can readily kill deer when they appear in an area.

CWD management has become a political issue in a number of states, pitting hunters against deer farmers. The record shows that these groups shouldn’t spar, but instead have a common enemy in the disease. As states look for ways to manage and limit CWD, they should look to build coalitions.

Charly Seale is chairman of the media review committee for the American Cervid Alliance, a leadership council of American elk, deer and exotic associations.

columns@tribtoday.com