Thankfully, we’ve made it through another deer season without chronic wasting disease (CWD) showing up in our wildlife. But the politics surrounding CWD are heating up and taking an ugly turn. To review: CWD is an always-fatal neurological disease of cervids (deer and elk) caused by a mutated protein. A cousin to mad cow disease, CWD was first detected in penned animals in Colorado many years ago. It was thought to be confined out West until Wisconsin hunters killed three wild deer that had CWD last year. (It’s since been found in Illinois, too.)
There is an established link between captive cervids and the disease. One popular theory is CWD was caused by feeding captive animals contaminated protein products and it spread to wild populations through contact with infected, confined animals. Wildlife managers and conservation groups have been vocal about protecting Michigan’s deer and elk herds from such possible contamination.
There is, for instance, an embargo against importing captive deer and elk from other states. That rule should stay in effect until some sort of live-animal test for CWD is developed.
“There’s no doubt about it, that’s the best way to protect ourselves,” says Department of Natural Resources veterinarian Dr. Steve Schmitt. “Most states have some sort of ban on moving captive cervids.”
But the captive cervid industry — which is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, not the DNR — is fighting any controls on the business, charging the state’s largest conservation group with hysteria. The industry says MUCC is trying to put it out of business and stops just short of labeling the conservation group as anti-hunting.
In a letter to presidents of Safari Club International (SCI) chapters, the Michigan Deer and Elk Farmers Association blasts MUCC and challenges director Sam Washington’s credentials as a spokesman for hunting. The letter appeals to SCI members, who are generally supportive of captive cervid facilities, to stand up for hunting.
This appears to be a classic attempt to divide and conquer.
(Dan Marsh, executive director of the cervid farmers’ association and author of the letter, did not return my phone calls.)
MUCC has led the charge for responsible oversight of the captive cervid industry. Many in the wildlife community were opposed to transferring authority over captive wildlife from DNR to Ag because of this sort of possibility. Unlike the DNR, which has a law division, Ag has no enforcement personnel.
But MUCC’s recommendations have not been especially outlandish. The most aggressive ones — an embargo on imported animals and mandatory double fencing of enclosures — work to protect the industry as well as the wild populations.
The DNR recommends hunters returning from out of state bring back only boned-out meat, capes and antlers. MUCC would like to make this the law. But the farmers’ association charges this could eventually lead to a total embargo against bringing back any out-of-state game.
There is no basis for this charge.
Fact is, parts of three known CWD-positive animals were brought into Michigan this past season and likely have been in the past, too. But Schmitt downplays their significance compared to the embargo on live captive animals.
“Fecal material and saliva are much more of a risk than a carcass,” he said.
Although there is a research project at Colorado State University to determine the risk of disease transmission through infected carcasses, it won’t be completed for years. In the meantime, controlling the possibility of exposure through live infected animals should be Job One.
“The thing that we’re concerned with is, if it comes here by means that are preventable, then we’ve let people down,” Washington said. “We certainly don’t want to find out, after it gets here, it was through some transmission that we could have stopped.”
Now that doesn’t sound hysterical, does it?