Disease Fuels Debate Between MDC and Deer Industry

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AUXVASSE - Chronic wasting disease (CWD) threatens the state's whitetail deer population, but those who raise the deer for sport and breeding question the seriousness of the threat and the tactics used by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to prevent its spread.

MDC considers the disease to always be fatal in deer. It is caused by an abnormal protein, which eventually deteriorates the animal's brain. The disease can be compared to Alzheimer's in humans. But there is no known connection between CWD and any disease found in humans or other livestock.

The president of the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association (MWBHRA) said the conservation department is blowing this disease out of proportion.

"I think you can no longer put the label on the captive whitetail deer that they're unhealthy," Charles James said. "I think they're healthier than the free-ranging deer. They're healthier than most livestock in Missouri and most livestock in the United States."

James isn't only the MWBHRA president, but is also a former MU wildlife biology professor, and owns nearly 150 deer at his own private hunting and breeding ranch. His group began intensive testing for their animals more than a decade ago.

"We started the CWD program in 2001," James said. "We've started the tuberculosis program. We've started the brucellosis program...things that over the last 10 years have made our industry a lot healthier, made our deer a lot healthier."

Although MDC says CWD is fatal, hunters and breeders question the validity of that statement because the only positive cases for the disease have been found in dead deer.

"The department's only telling half the story," James said.

James said no deer has technically died from the disease because it's only been found in dead ones. There has not been a live test yet to track the disease's entire course.

"In clinical studies, where we've seen deer that are exhibiting signs of chronic wasting disease, where they're starting to get emaciated, tremors, excessive salivation, starvation, drooping of the head, rather than let that disease run its course, which we know the final outcome, those animals are being put down," MDC Field Protection Chief Randy Doman said.

The conservation department said it has tested more than 38,000 free-ranging and captive deer since 2001, but James isn't sure if that sample size is big enough to accurately represent Missouri's 1.2 million deer.

"They're only looking in the endemic zones and around," James said. "They're not looking statewide for CWD at this time. They're still doing the lymph nodes from harvested animals around the state at a significance level way below the ability to find it."

 MDC said it is focusing on Macon and Linn counties because, out of 21 positive cases of CWD in north-central Missouri, most of them were found there.

"We're working in cooperation with local land owners up there and hunters to test more deer in that specific area in Linn and Macon counties to effectively contain the outbreak of CWD," Doman said.

This additional testing costs deer ranchers up to one hundred dollars per head. James said his group wants to find a less expensive way to test for CWD, but there doesn't seem to be a way out.

"The only herd plan that they've implemented in the past is been to remove all the animals, and there's been no federal indemnity money, so that's a voluntary thing," James said. "You can't force somebody to remove all their animals without paying them for it. A live test would certainly help because then we could go test the rest of the herd, but since there's no live test that's been proved yet, the only thing is to put the rest of the animals down."

Not only does it cost breeders their livelihood if a positive case is found on their ranch, but the state's deer hunting industry is at stake of losing big bucks. Deer hunting in Missouri employs about 12,000 people and brings in a billion dollars to the state's economy. MDC worries that if CWD continues spreading, the loss of the deer population would end hunting for nearly half a million people who target deer in this state each year.

"We're trying to be proactive addressing this issue now rather than waiting to be reactive later," Doman said.

Although these efforts could benefit the state's economy in the long run, the deer breeders group thinks the conservation has something against them.

"I think they have some hidden agendas where they don't like our industry, and they're trying to bully our industry around a little bit," James said.

James said this could also be caused by a feud between MDC and the Department of Agriculture regarding disease control, but MDC discounted that charge.

The conservation department has held eight public meetings throughout the state to inform breeders and hunters about CWD. For more information about the disease, visit its website.