Thousands of commercial deer farms in U.S. are looming danger for wildlife and even people

By on January 31, 2018 with 6 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

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.

Public Policy (Legal/Legislative), Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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  1. Lena says:

    I’m a little disappointed by the failure to recognize the impact of CWD on wild, injured and orphaned deer in the care of wildlife rehabilitators. State wildlife agencies across the US are beginning to prohibit the rehabilitation of injured and orphaned, citing the risk of CWD transmission as the rationale. What becomes of orphaned fawn if their rehabilitation is prohibited? In this regard, the disease is a killer to animals who are not even infected. Rather then prohibit rehabilitation, state agencies should work closely with rehabilitators to implement disease prevention protocols. If they do not, the general public is apt to attempt to care for fawn themselves with unintentional consequences for both humans and fawn.

    • Suzanne says:

      I agree with you! First and foremost rehab care should always be attempted and if there is that much danger in risk of cross contamination from a fawn, then there needs to be a protocol established for all wildlife rehabilitation centers no different then they do because of the possibility of rabies, of diphtheria, of scabies, bird flu, anything is potentially possible and all animals like Mexico City placed in their constitution…ALL animals are sentient beings and should be treated humanely at the very least and in fact truthfully deserve more because animals are our guides in this world of we are ever in any kind of situation where we are lost and have none of our familiar tools for telling us where we are, where water is where food is and even what food is safe or not safe, what is medicine and how to use for what! So the only way we can find these things out and for ourselves is to wonder around without direction looking and hopefully catalogIng all you find so you will know where everything is and where you are! About the easiest way is to watch and follow the animals!

      It is horrible enough that they have this disease, one that has been around long enough there should be gone or study done already and two something should already exist but no?!?! These precious gentle most of the time animals SHOULD be brought in regardless and testing done to make a cure to rid the animals and the earth soil of the disease! And every rehab center should have several different types of quarantines for several different types of animals, at least one for large over 300#, 4 for under 300#, 2 for birds, maybe even 1 for extra large and or long necks and or over 1000#, 1 for burrowing animals, and of course several for small animals like squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, farrets, etc.

  2. joel dodd says:

    Kudos to the author and HSUS for shining light on a particularly harmful industry. As a wildlife biologist and former administrator of a state wildlife agency ,I can testify to the devastating effects of unscrupulous operators in this mad science they call deer farming. Make no mistake, this practice is not supported by rank and file sportsman nor any professional wildlife organization. The article is spot on in recommending an alliance of all who have concerns for wildlife regardless of their individual stance on hunting. Thankfully, HSUS isn’t bridled by special interest political lobby as some state agencies are. Lead the way HSUS !

    • Peter Li says:

      How can I get in touch with you Joel? I got some more questions regarding deer farming and its problems.

  3. Gine Oquendo says:

    Hi, I would say thank you and congrats to the team. I remember when I was in my uncle’s house for vacation they loved hunting the deer twice a week and he is so proud of doing that. I hope in this article can help us to aware of the bad effect of what they are doing. I would like also to take the chance to say thank you to my Veterinarian who always help me out. Thank you.

  4. Terry Singeltary Sr. says:

    Did Mississippi CWD come from, or was it caused by Texas?

    FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 09, 2018

    Mississippi Chronic Wasting Disease confirmed in a White-tailed Deer

    did cwd to Mississippi come from Texas ???

    SATURDAY, AUGUST 19, 2017

    Mississippi Officials fear white-tailed deer in Lamar County may have chronic wasting disease

    FRIDAY, JUNE 23, 2017

    Chronic Wasting Disease possibly unleashed in Mississippi

    THURSDAY, APRIL 28, 2016

    *** Three charged with various violations of the federal Lacey Act for white-tailed deer importation from Texas to Mississippi


    Chronic wasting disease management in ranched elk using rectal biopsy testing Research Paper 09 Feb 2018

    Terry S. Singeltary Sr.

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