Deer disease turns into political issue

First Posted: 2/7/2015

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is not only a wildlife and health issue, it is a political one as well.

CWD drew numerous questions at the Wildlife District Two deer summit in Findlay on Jan. 24, hosted by the Ohio Division of Wildlife (DOW).

CWD is a neurological disease affecting deer and other North American cervids, which are hoofed mammals where males characteristically have antlers. The known natural hosts of CWD are mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose. A prion, an abnormal protein, causes CWD. This prion attacks the brains of infected animals, causing them to lose weight, display abnormal behavior and lose bodily functions. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says no strong evidence of CWD transmission to humans has been reported.

The disease was first identified in captive mule deer in Colorado in the late 1960s and in the wild in 1981. It has been found in 23 states and in wild deer herds in 19 of them.

The incubation period for CWD can be up to two years. Hunters are advised when harvesting deer to take the precaution of wearing protective gloves when field dressing and boning a deer. Boning is highly recommended. Burying the bones well into the ground also is recommended since the prions can remain active even in the soil.

The only reliable test for CWD requires testing of lymph nodes or brain material after the animal is dead. That is why the DOW collects deer heads for its testing. The DOW has been testing for the disease since 2002. There has been no evidence of the disease in Ohio’s wild deer herd. Greater concerns cropped up last year when CWD was discovered in a deer on a deer farm in Holmes County.

In Ohio, the DOW regulates the wild deer herd while the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) regulates captive deer facilities. The two agencies have worked together on testing for CWD along with the Ohio EPA and Ohio Department of Health.

Concerns cropped up at the recent summit when it was asked how the ODA could allow deer to come from Pennsylvania, a state known to have CWD in captive herds. It was also asked if the ODA was reimbursing the DOW for its work on CWD. It was felt hunter and angler money (DOW is funded primarily by hunting and fishing and permit fees) should be reimbursed.

DOW personnel deftly sidestepped the political issue and said the agencies are cooperating with one another. On some issues, they said hunters and sportsmen should contact their legislators.

It was insinuated by a member of the audience, but not stated that Jim Zehringer, of Fort Recovery, is the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and had been named to lead the ODA by Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The DOW is one of several divisions under the ODNR. Zehringer has made a career in agriculture and much of his agenda when he was a state legislator (2007-11) focused on agricultural efforts.

CWD has become quite a political issue in some states and Ohio’s recent CWD case has big concerns in neighboring states. Record-keeping by deer farms has been questioned in several states. There have been ramifications nationally. Conservation groups question how deer farms are regulating their herds and how ethical the hunting is that is allowed on fenced preserves, etc. There is big money involved as the deer farm industry has grown. Many of these deer are sold to fenced preserves where there often is little regulation on the hunting aspect.

The Ohio DOW used to regulate deer farms, but politicians decided in 2012 to pass legislation giving that authority to the ODA. At the time, it was noted in some areas PAC money played a role as the deer farming industry had the backing of a powerful lobby. This is true in many states.

Questions across the country have arisen about how tough regulations are on the deer farming industry and how well they are enforced. And there appears to be a complex web of captive deer shipments.

In Ohio’s case, deer preserve owner Daniel Yoder has drawn the ire of the ODA. He simply disregarded a quarantine order and moved deer from one preserve to another farm. He still had not killed all the deer he was supposed to at the time of the deer summit, according to one DOW official.

“Yoder willfully violated the terms of the quarantine, and we’ve also had chronic record-keeping issues with him. The last straw was deer escaping from his property. That could allow the disease to potentially spread to hundreds of thousands of wild animals in the state,” ODA spokesman Erica Hawkins was quoted recently in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, state veterinarian Craig Shultz told the Pennsylvania Outdoor News that no deer farmer in that state has willfully violated a quarantine order, but he noted record keeping has been an issue at times.

Pennsylvania Agriculture Deputy Director Mathew Meals told the publication about 47 percent of the ag department’s work time deals with CWD in the department’s seven regions. In two regions, he added, CWD work accounts for 70 percent of staff time.

Ohio’s neighbors to the southeast (West Virginia) and west (Indiana) are quite concerned about CWD appearing in the Buckeye state.

West Virginia wanted some thorough records from Ohio when one of its deer farms sought to purchase a prime whitetail from World Class Whitetails in Millersburg. The deal never happened because West Virginia kept waiting for the records, according to the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette.

“We have (record-keeping) standards for our facilities and we expect the same from other states. I wanted to make sure the information we received met our standards,” said Randy Tucker, West Virginia DNR biologist who oversees the agency’s regulation of captive cervid facilities.

According to the Gazette, Tucker found that ODA requires a once a year update on records by captive-cervid facilities while the West Virginia agency wants records updated every two weeks.

There is legislation in West Virginia that would shift monitoring of captive cervid facilities from its DNR to its state ag department.

Deer farming and high fence preserves have been controversial subjects in Indiana for the past couple of years. Bills have been introduced in the Indiana House and Senate on the subject.

The measure in the House requires new preserves to be at least 100 acres with eight-foot tall fences and establishes licensing requirements, inspection requirements and fees. The Senate bill would prohibit high-fence hunting in the state along with several other restrictions.

The Indianapolis Star ran an excellent four-day series it called Buck Fever last March where it looked at several aspects of captive cervid facilities including hunting trophy deer, disease, preserves and regulations. In this 18-month investigation, the paper submitted public records requests to the federal government and all 50 states. It interviewed more than 100 scientists, wildlife officials, hunters, lawmakers, farmers, hunting preserve operators, lobbyists and trade association officials across the U.S. and Canada. It also visited farms and preserve operators in Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Texas.

The paper followed up this series with an extensive article in late December and in it said, “The Ohio case, more than other instances of the disease (CWD), calls into question the effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s CWD monitoring program meant to keep interstate shipments safe.

Members of Congress and several conservation organizations sent letters to the USDA following the Star’s investigation seeking greater restrictions in its monitoring program concerning the interstate movement of such deer. The USDA rejected that idea. It said its program was adequate.

According to the Charleston Gazette article, some minimum standards are set under USDA regulations, but states’ regulatory agencies can set their own particulars under these standards.

In Missouri there has been a political backlash against the department of conservation after Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill last year that would have transferred regulatory control of captive deer to the state’s ag department. A bill similar to the one Nixon vetoed is expected to be introduced into the state senate.

The Boone and Crockett Club in early January adopted a statement on deer breeding and shooting operations. The club is the oldest conservation organization in North America and was founded in 1887 by future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.

Part of its statement reads: “The Boone and Crockett Club supports the Public Trust Doctrine and opposes any legislation sponsored by the captive-cervid industry that allows them to privatize native wildlife or transfer management authority over their industry from state, provincial or tribal wildlife agencies to other management authorities such as agriculture departments. The club recognizes and endorses the importance of private property rights, but maintains that what is best for wildlife is for it to remain a public and not a private resource.”

The Public Trust Doctrine is a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the early 20th century that indicated “wildlife has been considered not a private, but a public resource that belongs to all citizens equally,” according to Boone and Crockett.

Stay tuned. CWD has been around for 50 years and it is not going away. Neither are the wildlife, health and political issues.