Cornering deer disease in the wild
To the editor:
As deer hunting season takes hold around the country, hunters will once again worry about Chronic Wasting Disease, a deer and elk ailment that has currently been found in 25 states. 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, and was first detected in free-ranging deer 30 years ago in Colorado before popping up elsewhere across the US and in 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.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been testing since 2002 for CWD, on average about 3,800 tests per year. That’s less than 1 percent of Iowa’s estimated free-ranging deer population of 400,000 animals. We believe that this is not enough to accurately monitor for CWD.
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 the importation 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” on deer farms. (Cervids are deer or elk.)
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.
– Charly Seale, Charles City (chairman, media review committee for American Cervid Alliance)