Who is to blame for mad deer?
The latest battlefield description from Afghanistan? No. It's the next battlefield from the rolling, wooded hills near Madison, Wisconsin. The snipers are employees of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The targets? White-tailed deer, potential carriers of a deadly disease that may also infect people. It's called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), and it's steadily spreading across North America.
"CWD clearly originated in northeastern Colorado and now has ended up spreading far and wide into many states and two Canadian provinces," writes John Stauber, a Madison, Wisconsin, activist and co-author of Mad Cow U.S.A. (Common Courage, 1997), which examines England's Mad Cow nightmare and whether it could happen here.
The disease, he claims, is traveling faster and more effectively than nature could ever accomplish. He suspects this is due to the interstate transportation of game farm animals. And he blames the expansion of the disease on the game farm industry and state agricultural agencies that act more as game farm patrons than as regulators.
The outbreak is causing near hysteria in rural Wisconsin. The state plans to kill as many as 50,000 deer in the south-central part of the state, and deer hunters everywhere are left to wonder whether their venison is safe to eat. Research and anecdotal evidence suggests it is not. And that's scary news for the fourteen million deer hunters around the country.
Both Mad Cow and Chronic Wasting Disease are kinds of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE). These diseases aren't viral or bacterial, yet somehow they transform or "fold" proteins in brain cells called prions. When enough infected prions deposit themselves in the brain, microscopic ruptures form in the brain cells. Prior to death, behavioral changes become apparent.
As the disease progresses, infected cattle become very agitated, kicking violently with no provocation. They also have trouble eating and swallowing, and usually lose weight. Similarly, deer with Chronic Wasting Disease stop eating. Their resulting emaciated state gives the disease its name. They also shy away from fellow animals, begin to slobber uncontrollably, and walk in circles.
As with all TSEs, Chronic Wasting Disease has no cure and is always fatal. The only way to test for it in elk and cattle is to kill them and examine brain samples under a microscope. A live test for deer was recently developed using a tonsil biopsy, but it's not yet clear how accurate this is.
The human version of TSE is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (pronounced Croytz-feld Yawkob). People with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease experience symptoms similar to Alzheimer's, including memory loss and depression, followed by rapidly progressive dementia and death usually within a year. While Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is rare (humans literally have a one-in-a-million chance of getting it), over the last few years three young deer hunters (from Utah, Oklahoma, and Maine) died of the illness.
Those deaths sparked an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, largely because the three hunters were younger than thirty, which is extremely rare for Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (sixty-eight is the median age for deaths resulting from the illness). While it found no connection to Chronic Wasting Disease-infected venison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also had no way to test deer these hunters had already consumed. The agency did kill and test some deer where the victims of the disease had hunted. All the animals tested negative. There was evidence, though, that all the hunters were exposed to elk from Colorado or Wyoming, possibly from areas where Chronic Wasting Disease is prevalent. However, it was impossible for center investigators to know if those particular elk were infected.
Dr. Thomas Pringle thinks it's very likely that Chronic Wasting Disease can harm people. A molecular biologist who for five years covered TSE diseases for Sperling Biomedical Foundation in Oregon, Pringle notes that game agencies in Colorado and Wyoming have spent the last two decades assuring hunters there was no scientific proof that anyone had ever died from eating Chronic Wasting Disease-tainted venison. Yet, Pringle says, the research on Chronic Wasting Disease's potential human health risks is virtually nonexistent. He contends these agencies took their position to protect a multibillion dollar industry that revolves around deer and elk hunting.
The research that does exist isn't encouraging. In September 2000, the European Molecular Biology Organization published a study that found that deer prion materials infected with Chronic Wasting Disease converted human prion materials in test tubes at very low rates. "Chronic Wasting Disease and [Mad Cow conversions happened] at about the same rate, in this proxy test, for humans," Pringle observes, and says similar tests alerted British scientists that Mad Cow beef could potentially infect people. To date, more than 100 people have died from a Mad Cow-derived form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
In early April 2002, Byron Caughey, who directed the European Molecular Biology Organization research, told a Wisconsin newspaper that while the risk of people contracting infection from a Chronic Wasting Disease deer is probably low, "it's not a risk I'd want to take." The head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Darrell Bazzell, publicly admitted his agency couldn't guarantee that meat from deer infected with Chronic Wasting Disease was 100 percent Safe to eat, leading one Milwaukee food bank to stop accepting venison.
The epicenter of Chronic Wasting Disease is the Foothills Wildlife Research Facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, operated by the state's Department of Wildlife. In the mid-1960s, the Department of Wildlife ran a series of nutritional studies on wild deer and elk, releasing them when various projects were completed. Soon after the studies began, however, Foothills deer and elk began dying from a mysterious disease. It was not identified as Chronic Wasting Disease until 1980.
The Foothills facility also held a number of sheep with scrapie, the sheep form of TSE, which has existed in North America since 1947, and which Pringle thinks was transferred into the deer and elk from contact with the sheep. He believes Chronic Wasting Disease "must be an extremely virulent strain" to jump the species barrier.
"That's the theory," says Michael Miller, a veterinarian and Chronic Wasting Disease expert at the Foothills facility. Yet he also says it's possible the disease existed naturally in wild deer and elk, and infected animals were brought into Foothills for nutritional studies and began spreading the illness among the closely confined animals.
In 1981, the first wild animal (an elk) with Chronic Wasting Disease was found in Larimer County, Colorado, near the Foothills facility, and the disease moved out into northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. Today, the disease is found in more than 15,000 square miles of Colorado alone. However, testing by the Colorado Department of Wildlife in the 1980s found Chronic Wasting Disease at under 1 percent in elk and 2 percent or less for deer. But the rate of infection picked up speed in the mid-1990s. Pockets in Colorado today have deer at 7 to 8 percent infection rates, while 15 percent of the deer in Larimer County have tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease.
In 1996, an elk at a Saskatchewan game farm was found to have the disease. By 2001, the province had twenty-nine game farms under quarantine, and eventually nearly 8,000 elk were slaughtered, with more than 100 testing positive for Chronic Wasting Disease.
"We traced back all the Chronic Wasting Disease exposures to a single elk from South Dakota," says Dr. George Luterbach, chief veterinarian for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. That elk arrived in the province in 1989 and died in 1990. Chronic Wasting Disease was eventually found on the South Dakota farm, and Luterbach thinks an animal from there infected the Saskatchewan game farm, which then bought and sold elk, seeding the disease into other operations. Citing Canada's privacy act, Luterbach won't release the name of the South Dakota farm.
The year 2000 also saw Saskatchewan record its first wild deer with Chronic Wasting Disease, followed the next year by two more. Darrel Rowledge, director of the Alliance for Public Wildlife, a conservation group based in Calgary, says, given that Chronic Wasting Disease is virtually indestructible (disinfectants and ultra-high temperatures don't prevent transmission) and always fatal, historical and scientific records should reveal its presence in North America before the 1960s. They don't, so Rowledge, like Stauber, blames game farms for transporting the disease. "Scientists knew that privatization, domestication, and commercialization of wildlife was going to cause horrendous disease problems," he says. But in many state legislatures and agricultural agencies, "There was this presumption that [game farmers] should be allowed to exist until it was proven that they were doing something wrong."
Chronic Wasting Disease was also discovered on game farms in Alberta, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota from 1997 to 2001. By the time Wisconsin announced its problem, Nebraska and South Dakota had infected wild deer, too.
But Wisconsin is arguably in the most dire straits. Elk appear the least susceptible to Chronic Wasting Disease, with mule deer (a western cousin of white-tails) next in line. All the evidence suggests that white-tailed deer most easily contract and spread the illness. The exact route of infection between animals isn't known, but Miller says casual contact passes the disease. This could include deer feeding together, touching noses, or stepping in each others' feces and urine.
Most deer in Colorado and Wyoming are mule deer, very thinly dispersed (usually fewer than ten animals per square mile), and much less sociable than white-tails. But Wisconsin has an estimated 1.6 million white-tails, often at seventy or more per square mile, and in frequent contact. Pringle thinks Chronic Wasting Disease could rip through the deer population east of the Mississippi with virtually nothing to stop it.
In February, Wisconsin reported that three deer killed by hunters the previous fall had Chronic Wasting Disease, its first appearance east of the Mississippi River. After further testing found another fifteen deer with Chronic Wasting Disease approximately twenty miles west of Madison, the Department of Natural Resources announced it would try to eradicate all the deer (estimated at more than 25,000) in the 360-square-mile area, figuring fewer deer will slow the spread of the disease. The Department of Natural Resources began giving away free hunting permits this June, vowing a near-continuous hunt in the fall. The state legislature and the governor also gave the agency the legal right to shoot deer from roads and, if necessary, from helicopters.
The Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives held Chronic Wasting Disease hearings in mid-May, and Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum, who had asked the federal government for $18.5 million to fight the disease, testified that Chronic Wasting Disease could destroy Wisconsin's wildlife and hunting heritage. While Wisconsin Congressmen chimed in supportively, not everyone was a booster.
Representative Jay Inslee, Democrat of Washington, asked McCallum about a 1998 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources memo on Chronic Wasting Disease-exposed elk coming onto Wisconsin game farms. Why hadn't Wisconsin taken more precautions to keep out the disease? he asked. McCallum insisted state agencies had taken the appropriate steps, but Inslee doesn't buy it.
"There were at least two specific instances where other states had informed Wisconsin that Chronic Wasting Disease-infected [or exposed] herds had sent elk to Wisconsin," Inslee says. "Even in light of this, Wisconsin didn't require mandatory testing and inspection of game farms."
"It's important to note that there's never been a case in Wisconsin of Chronic Wasting Disease in an elk ranch or game farm," says Henry Kriegel of a Montana public relations firm that represents a large game farm association. Wisconsin's discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease in wild deer, he argues, has "become an opportunity for those who oppose game farming to get media attention and create leverage for their position against game farming."
The first part of Kriegel's statement is true. Yet he doesn't reveal the whole picture.
For example, the voluntary monitoring plan had only forty of the state's 272 elk farmers signed up by the summer of 2000, and just eighty by May 2002. Wisconsin's 570 deer farmers ignored the voluntary program almost entirely.
Flaws with no mandatory testing were apparent in October 2001, after Colorado discovered a Chronic Wasting Disease outbreak on a number of game farms. At that point, 450 elk had been shipped to game farms in other states, including nineteen to Wisconsin. The Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection either quarantined or killed and tested these elk, except for two elk which the department wasn't able to locate. They had died before the investigation, and no one is sure where the carcasses are. A third carcass was recovered, but it was so decomposed that a brain sample couldn't be taken.
Game farm regulations concerning Chronic Wasting Disease vary by state, but in the past someone could import nearly any animal as long as it had a health certificate. That process could find detectable diseases like bovine tuberculosis, but did little for the nontestable Chronic Wasting Disease.
Once a state finds Chronic Wasting Disease, though, the whole game changes. South Dakota and Nebraska, for example, now require game farms to import animals only from operations certified as Chronic Wasting Disease-free for at least five years. Wisconsin put such a regulation into effect following its discovery of the outbreak.
Many states recently closed their borders to elk or deer from states with Chronic Wasting Disease. But, as with much of the regulatory framework surrounding game farms, this was done only after years of interstate trade in game farm animals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in September 2001, declared a Chronic Wasting Disease emergency nationwide and announced its intention to wipe out the disease. With agriculture its regulatory focus, though, the department's efforts are concentrated on the game farm industry, not the spread of the disease in the wild. Among its initiatives is to provide indemnity monies (about $3,000 per elk) to game farms found with Chronic Wasting Disease where the standard management procedure is euphemistically called "depopulation." That is, slaughtering all the animals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture took a more proactive approach this spring, actually buying up the stock of fifteen game farms in Colorado, even though no Chronic Wasting Disease was ever found in these facilities. The department then "depopulated" them to the tune of approximately 1,200 elk.
No word yet if game farms in other places with Chronic Wasting Disease, like Wisconsin, will now be bought up, too, or if the Department of Agriculture will also try to eradicate Chronic Wasting Disease in the wild--or if it can.
In most states, game farms are regulated by agriculture departments, though that wasn't always the case. In Wisconsin, for example, the Department of Natural Resources oversaw game farms until the mid-1990s, when the state legislature and then-Governor Tommy Thompson shifted responsibility to the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, a move the game farmers applauded.
Rowledge says these regulatory shifts across the United States weren't accidental. In the 1970s, more and more potential game farmers wanted to set up operations so they could sell elk velvet (the soft material that peels off newly formed antlers, which is marketed as a nutritional supplement and aphrodisiac), host "canned" hunts where animals are shot inside these farms, and market elk meat.
Despite tall fences, game farms have a well-documented history of captive and wild animals intermingling. For state wildlife biologists, the big concern was game farms bringing in diseases. "Whenever you move an animal," Rowledge says, "you're moving all the diseases and parasites the animal has in it and on it. You have no choice."
So state wildlife agencies generally opposed these farms. "When there was resistance," Rowledge says, "the game farmers sought to put themselves under the jurisdiction of bureaucracies that were friendly to their ideas."
Stauber thinks the federal government must step in with an eradication program or Chronic Wasting Disease will expand even further across the continent.
"If I'm right, we've got a hell of a crisis on our hands," he says. "My hope is that growing public outrage over Chronic Wasting may light a fire under the feds to address a problem they've ignored for a decade and a half."
Brian McCombie is a freelance writer based in Marshfield, Wisconsin. He specializes in wildlife and environmental issues.
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2002|
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