In one area of the Midwest, the interests of big business are colliding with the unyielding demands of nature, as they so often do. But a recent court ruling in Missouri is another mark on the chalkboard for wildlife agencies in the fight to protect deer populations and prevent the spread of a 100 percent fatal and rapidly spreading disease known as Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of August 1, 2018, at least 23 states and two Canadian provinces had wild deer, elk and/or moose that tested positive for CWD.
“A progressive, fatal, degenerative neurological disease,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), CWD has the ability, in the near term, to drastically reduce these animals’ numbers and, in the long term, the potential to wipe out entire populations. At the very worst is the concern that it could eventually jump the species barrier to humans.
CWD can remain viable in the environment — in soil and on plants — for years.
A disease likened to Mad Cow Disease, CWD is highly contagious and always fatal, spreading from contact with infested urine, feces, saliva or spinal or other bodily fluids. CWD is in a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders, and infected deer may not show any symptoms of the disease within the first year of incubation, according to the CDC. Symptoms can include drastic weight loss (wasting) and stumbling, among others — symptoms which are typically only visible within the last few weeks of life. To make matters worse, the disease can remain viable in the environment — in soil and on plants — for years.
CWD is found in both free-ranging and captive deer — those bred for both agricultural and hunting purposes. However, it is known to have originated in a captive deer herd at a Colorado State University research facility and, according to the CDC, was first discovered in wild deer in 1981. The 23 states that the disease is known to have infiltrated are spread across nearly all regions of the U.S., including the West, Midwest, South and Northeast.
While the overall rate of CWD in wild deer and elk is relatively low, data from the CDC indicate that in some areas, the rate of infection exceeds 10 percent. But on a local level, some places have reported rates of more than 25 percent. Among captive deer populations, the rate is said to be much higher in some herds; in one in particular, 79 percent of the population reportedly had the disease.
In Missouri, the captive cervid industry is a big business, with 44 facilities with whitetail deer and 138 private breeding locations with a total of approximately 9,000 deer, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). This industry typical engages in the selective breeding of deer for abnormally large antlers and offers private hunting for paying customers.
MDC’s updated regulations are designed to “address areas of concern associated with animal movement, fencing standards, disease testing and herd certification.”
Since CWD was first detected in 2010 and 2011 at captive deer facilities in two Missouri counties, 75 free-ranging and 11 captive deer have tested positive for CWD in 11 counties. In an effort to manage the disease, MDC amended its regulations to begin monitoring the captive deer industry; these rules are designed to “address areas of concern associated with animal movement, fencing standards, disease testing and herd certification,” Joe Jerek, news services coordinator for MDC, said in an email.
The regulations were scheduled to go into effect in January 2015. However, owners of some of the state’s large private hunting preserves — arguing that the captive cervid industry should not be subject to wildlife regulations and should instead be managed like agricultural operations, by the USDA — filed a lawsuit and were granted a preliminary injunction in order to prevent the enforcement of the regulations. One of their most significant complaints was with regard to MDC’s ban on importing deer — a policy already in place in other states.
After years of litigation and an initial win for the plaintiffs in the circuit court, Hill v. Missouri Department of Conservation, et al, made its way to the Missouri Supreme Court. On July 3, 2018, the justices unanimously ruled in favor of the appellant — MDC — and upheld the department’s regulations. “The Conservation Commission has full constitutional regulatory authority over the bird, fish, game, forestry, and wildlife resources in the state,” the ruling stated, citing language from Article IV Section 40(a) of the Missouri Constitution. The court argued that this includes deer, whether they are captive or wild. “Cervids are members of species that are wild by nature and, therefore, are wildlife,” the ruling continued. “Even though privately owned, they are physically located within the borders of this state and, therefore, are ‘resources of the state.’”
“Even though privately owned, they are physically located within the borders of this state and, therefore, are ‘resources of the state.’”
The regulations, set to take effect soon, will bar the importation of whitetail and mule deer to Missouri, institute new permit requirements and require more detailed record-keeping, better fencing and testing for CWD.
As a state that rakes in approximately $1 billion in revenue from the deer hunting industry, Missouri is taking other steps to mitigate and prevent the spread of CWD as well.
“MDC works with hunters, landowners, taxidermists, and others through mandatory and voluntary sampling to collect tissue samples for CWD testing in areas where [the disease] has been found,” Jerek said. “[The department] also conducts broader, ongoing statewide testing for CWD and focuses on one-half of the state each year.”
In addition, MDC is issuing additional firearms antlerless permits to maintain population levels and has removed its antler-point restriction for counties in the management zone as young bucks can spread the disease to new areas as they search for territory and mates,” Jerek said. Feeding deer and using minerals or salt licks in these counties is also prohibited.