In Montana, hunters are fanning out across two large swaths of land in the state to shoot deer to be tested for chronic wasting disease (CWD). The disease was detected for the first time in wild deer populations in Montana last fall, marking the steady advance of CWD into vast tracts of land throughout the country. Always fatal to its cervid victims, CWD has no cure. Deer farms have proved to be incubators of the disease and could be responsible for its rapid spread.
Captive breeding farms raise deer and other cervids in particularly high densities for meat, antler velvet, and even for captive or canned hunting opportunities. There are thousands of these farms spread across the country – Pennsylvania and Texas alone have more than a thousand each. These operations comprise a system of wildlife CAFOs, fusing wildlife husbandry and agribusiness. It is thought that animals who escape from deer farms, or nose-to-nose interactions between captive and wild deer through fencing, provide the most important pathways for transmission. There is no live test for CWD, and symptoms—including repetitive walking, excessive drinking, loss of coordination, and increased salivating—may not show up for several years, if ever. This means that deer farms could have infected deer with no way of detecting the disease. Deer are also trucked and live-traded between farms, and that can allow the disease to spread across a vast range at 65 miles per hour.
CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy—similar to mad cow disease—that attacks the nervous system and brain of cervids. It was first identified in captive mule deer in Colorado in the late 1960s and has since spread into at least 22 states in both captive and wild populations of deer. Unlike other wildlife diseases, the abnormal proteins that cause CWD can survive in the soil for long periods of time, so once the disease is established in an area, it can remain in the environment for years.
When CWD is discovered in a state, its effects can be far-reaching, but responses are often insufficient and lacking in political will. Typically, sharpshooters and hunters are called upon to perform extensive deer culls in CWD-positive zones, with taxpayers left to foot the bill. An astounding example is Wisconsin, which has spent $45 million responding to the disease since CWD was detected in 2002, with even higher estimates of lost revenue to the state.
Without a cure, the best hope of controlling this disease is to stop the spread of CWD to populations that are currently CWD-free. Conservation-minded sportsmen understand this and many traditional hunting organizations, like the Boone and Crockett Club (based in Montana), oppose commercial deer breeding farms and captive hunts in part because of the threat of transmission of CWD. Prior to the detection of CWD in Montana’s wild deer population, voters in that state—led by a group largely comprised of hunters—recognized the danger captive deer farms pose to wild populations and led the effort to pass a ballot initiative to ban captive hunts and halt the establishment of any new captive deer operations in the state. Other states, however, have not been as forward looking and, despite CWD outbreaks, haven’t taken any meaningful steps to stop the raw commercialization of wildlife and phase out deer farms in the country.
Mad cow disease jumped the species barrier and led to the onset of the disease in people more than 20 years ago in the United States. Some studies have noted that infected deer seem to be more susceptible to hunters, which could increase the exposure humans have to CWD-tainted meat.
These studies, and the occurrence of CWD in wild deer in Montana for the first time ever, should serve as a wake-up call for state and federal agencies to take more meaningful, proactive steps to prevent the further spread of the disease. Animals who contract it die miserable deaths, and the disease has the potential to affect millions of creatures. Six percent of Americans hunt, and deer and elk are big targets for them, making this a human public health risk as well.
Here’s an area where sportsmen and wildlife management agencies should join together with animal advocates and other stakeholders towards this common goal by putting an end to captive deer farms and canned hunts. It is time to stop the crass commercialization of wildlife and look at this menacing animal health issue as a public health, conservation, and animal welfare issue that commands our attention.