Ramblins’ from the Hills & Hollers: Get ready for changes due to CWD’s steady spread

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If you are a deer hunter or wildlife enthusiast in Appalachia who has not heard of chronic wasting disease (CWD), get ready to be inundated with information, warnings and – eventually – changes in regulations affecting whitetail deer seasons, bag limits, what you do with harvested animals, even where you can hunt.

Cases of CWD, a type of transmittable spongiform encephalopathy (think “mad cow” disease), have been confirmed in several states in the southern Appalachian Region. Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama are the latest. The disease, not known to infect livestock or humans, is fatal to deer, elk and moose.

Transmitted by animal-to-animal contact, through contaminated environments or via feed and water sources, the disease currently is found in 25 states and three Canadian provinces.

The main threat posed by CWD’s spread so far has been economic. Deer hunting revenues derived from licensing, sporting equipment sales, land rents and sales taxes are considerable. CWD could deliver a financial blow to this profitable outdoor sport. High-fence hunt operators and commercial deer-elk farms fear quarantine regulations and even worse: forced depopulation of their herds.

Associated with documentation of the disease in formerly CWD-free states are political ripples that can become tidal waves. CWD does not worry only wildlife biologists, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. Enter the special interests, particularly those that have espoused stricter regulation of deer populations or looser regulations on “captive deer,” i.e. the deer farming and fence hunting industries.

The three southern states that recently confirmed CWD had reaction plans in place based on disease management protocols developed by partnerships of universities, wildlife agencies and non-profit hunting and outdoor federations. These protocols aim to determine the scope of infection through carcass tissue sampling in concentric zones around an “index” case. This usually involves setting a core radius zone and a wider buffer zone in which sampling rules and disease transmission precautions are established.

Hunters themselves are the first line of defense. Their cooperation is vital to successfully isolating CWD once the disease has been detected. But hunters also comprise the group most vulnerable to the politics that swirl around the issue. Balancing wildlife biology/management, economics and special interest concerns has never been easy. When it involves disease transmission, it becomes dicey.

Take, for example, the controversy that boiled up in Minnesota when a self-proclaimed Texas deer expert – James “Doctor Deer” Kroll – injected himself in the local CWD debate. On his Facebook page, Kroll states: “I often am criticized for not supporting the hysteria associated with CWD science.”

He insists that CWD concerns are overblown and the disease, in fact, might not be highly contagious. He also questions the usefulness of herd culling, the practice used to contain outbreaks.

In 2017, the Minnesota DNR proposed aggressive culling in response to a virulent CWD outbreak in the southern part of the state. In an appearance on stage at a public meeting entitled “The Facts and Fiction About CWD,” Kroll and Dr. Kenneth Shipley, a University of Illinois veterinarian and professor, criticized “hair-on-fire” overreactions and questioned why, if the disease affects only deer, elk and moose, such effort and resources are being devoted to eradication.

Significantly, both experts have connections to the commercial deer-hunting and deer-farming industries. Current CWD management protocols address confined deer populations that could become flashpoints for the disease. A single case of infection might result in the culling of an entire confined herd and loss of substantial investment for the owner.

Politicized CWD debate can involve organizations with different agendas but considerable clout. Farm Bureau state associations, powerful lobbying entities, represent the concerns of the agriculture industry. There is the question of whether CWD transmission to cattle is absolutely impossible. Diseases do mutate. In addition, CWD herd culling might benefit farmers through reduction of deer-related crop damage.

As CWD expands east of the Mississippi River, many concerns formerly off the radar screen will become hot button issues. The hunting community stands to lose and gain as wildlife management agencies enforce reaction protocols and the political head-knocking echoes in state House and Senate chambers.

In the short term, liberalized seasons and bag limits for culling will please many hunters; the possibility of mandatory CWD testing of harvested deer and carcass transport limitations will not. Also, the lurking shadow no one can ignore is how fear of potential CWD transferal to humans might affect hunting in general. (I know a veteran deer hunter who says he will sell his rifle and go back to rabbit hunting rather than take a chance. England’s mad cow disease outbreak several years ago is a case study of how even the experts can be surprised.)

The success of initial disease management is the fulcrum on which everything depends. The majority of conscientious hunters will support reasonable – but not draconian – efforts to stem the CWD tide.

What would constitute going too far? Rumors of a so-called secret plan developed as a doom’s day solution to CWD have recently roiled the waters. I had not heard of this zombies-of-the-apocalypse approach and scoffed at the idea that any state or wildlife agency would consider such a thing.

The apocalypse reaction would result in the extermination of all deer, infected and healthy, in a CWD management zone. One version of this rumor posits that the kill zone would be repopulated with animals bred to be genetically resistant. I do not believe we even have that capability.

I reference this rumor only to underline the anxiety and emotion engendered by a disease that, as far as we know, infects only deer, elk and moose. Sounds like science fiction or fantasy, right? Sort of like importing armadillos to control fire ants or transplanting mountain lions to kill wild hogs.

But stranger things have happened in the history of wildlife, pest and disease management. I truly hope it is fantasy. If everyone supports CWD control measures, maybe we will not have to worry about the deer zombies.

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