Captive deer farms are breeding grounds for the deadly chronic wasting disease, which has now spread to 24 states. While some states have wisely banned such facilities, others have done nothing, even as the disease spreads and costs taxpayers millions of dollars in response efforts. On the blog today, I have invited Samantha Hagio, director of wildlife protection for The HSUS, to discuss how states can combat this deadly disease, including ending a war on large carnivores like wolves and mountain lions who can be key allies in stopping CWD.
Mississippi officials recently reported the first case of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the state, confirming the further spread of this deadly disease that has been known to incubate among animals on captive deer farms. The news created alarm in neighboring Tennessee and Alabama, which immediately banned deer carcasses from Mississippi, and has added to the broader anxiety about CWD among wildlife and public health agencies.
CWD, which has now been reported in 24 states, is an always-fatal disease that wreaks havoc on infected deer, elk, and other cervids, and can linger for years in the environment, making it difficult to control. While it has yet to be diagnosed in a human, people risk becoming exposed to the disease through eating CWD-tainted meat. There is no cure, no vaccine, and no way to detect the disease in live deer.
Cracking down on captive deer farms and canned hunts, which are obvious breeding grounds for CWD, is essential to preventing its spread into healthy populations. While some states have wisely banned such facilities, others have done nothing, even as the disease spreads and costs taxpayers millions of dollars in response efforts.
Too many state and federal lawmakers seem determined to make the problem even worse by their relentless targeting of wolves and other native carnivores, who are significant allies in the effort to contain the disease.
Studies have shown that deer killed by large carnivores have a higher rate of CWD infection than deer killed by hunters. This is consistent with our common understanding that large carnivores like wolves, who run long distances to chase their prey, single out weak, old, and sick animals, contributing to the overall health of the population. Mountain lions, an ambush predator, also targeted CWD-infected animals, in a study conducted near Rocky Mountain National Park. Protecting native carnivores and allowing them to play their natural role in the ecosystem is a much more effective means of controlling CWD than wholesale culling of deer in an infected area. National Park Service biologist Douglas Smith states, “[w]olves are probably the single best way to stop the spread of CWD. Chronic wasting disease causes animals to act weird. Wolves kill animals like that.”
The Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota (all states where CWD has been found) are waging a war on wolves, having succeeded in getting the species delisted from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2011 and killing more than 1,500 gray wolves before protections were restored in 2014. The HSUS recently won a significant victory restoring federal protections for Great Lakes wolves, and we’re in the frontlines of the fight for wolves in other arenas as well. Most notably, lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan are currently pushing legislation to bar state officials from even enforcing laws against killing wolves.
Montana is responsible for another assault against wolves. Since ESA protections for wolves were stripped by Congress in 2011, between 200 and 250 wolves have been killed each year in Montana, including by inhumane and indiscriminate trapping. Wolves in neighboring Wyoming – where supplemental winter feeding of elk has concentrated the animals, also contributing to the spread of CWD – lost their federal protections last spring, and 44 wolves were killed in the state’s first hunting season since 2013.
Retired wolf interpreter at Yellowstone National Park, Norman Bishop, said “[w]hat we are witnessing with wolves is a battle of modern scientific data against entrenched Old West dogma and we are in a time in which data doesn’t appear to matter to those who cling to dogma. It is disheartening to realize how the states have abandoned good sense.” Former Montana wildlife commissioner and former CEO/president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, biologist Gary Wolfe, noted that the unlimited killing of wolves “is probably not the best ecological strategy for containing CWD…I believe wolf predation is an important tool that needs to be recognized and effectively utilized, along with other tools, as part of Montana’s CWD management plan.”
Now more than ever, it’s critical that we protect the large carnivores whose ecological role can help control CWD’s spread. State wildlife agencies and lawmakers should end their war on wolves and other large carnivores and allow these creatures to serve their natural function in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. We must urge members of Congress to acknowledge the foolishness of killing native carnivores, and cease the politically misguided and ecologically reckless backroom efforts to strip protections for wolves.