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It’s time to take action against CWD

BY GEORGE HARRISON AND JIM LOW

A television commercial in frequent rotation these days shows masked robbers smashing into a bank lobby. As panic-stricken customers fall to the floor, the bank’s uniformed security man watches with an air of blithe insouciance. “Do something!” implores a customer. But the man with the badge calmly explains, “Oh, I’m not a security ‘guard.’ I’m a security monitor. I only notify people if there’s a robbery…There’s a robbery.”

The point of the ad (for identity theft protection) is that just knowing you have a problem isn’t enough. You need someone to do something about the problem. The commercial’s dark humor has little appeal to hunters like me, who have watched the slow-motion disaster of chronic wasting disease spread across North America. I get a sinking feeling with every report of the always-fatal deer disease turning up in a new county, state, region or country. And the worst part is that agencies charged with guarding wildlife resources talk mostly about monitoring the spread of the disease.

I don’t mean to imply that wildlife agencies are doing nothing. Action requires knowledge and, for much of the disease’s 50-year history, too little was known about its nature to enable effective action. As they have learned more, state wildlife agencies have improved strategies for slowing the disease’s spread. Yet even containment, let alone eradication, remain out of reach.

Monitoring remains a critical element of chronic wasting disease management. Surveillance monitoring through random testing of hunter- and road-killed deer allows agencies to detect outbreaks in new areas. After that, more intensive, targeted testing endemic areas helps agencies define the geographic extent of outbreaks and track the percentage of deer that are infected. With this information, they can implement measures to reduce the risk of spreading chronic wasting disease. Such measures include bans on feeding deer, restricting transportation of live deer or deer carcasses and changes in hunting regulations aimed at reducing deer population density and thereby reducing opportunities for disease transmission.

Reducing deer numbers in targeted areas isn’t always popular, but when agencies have taken the time to inform hunters and other interest groups about the dangers of the disease, such measures have enjoyed strong public support. A much greater challenge is overcoming resistance from vested interests and politicians.

Claims by the captive-deer/elk industry that wild deer are infecting their facilities are ridiculous. Diseased wild deer didn’t wander from Colorado to southern Wisconsin, the first eastern state to face a large-scale chronic wasting disease outbreak. The disease arrived in Wisconsin on wheels.

Furthermore, the standard scenario of finding the disease in captive deer and subsequently detecting increasing prevalence among adjacent free-ranging deer undermines the theory of multiple wild origins.

Even leaving these facts aside, there is no denying two things.

One: holding deer in unnaturally high concentrations inside high-fence facilities is made to order for rapid transmission of disease.

Two: shipping deer between facilities, across state and international boundaries, is the only reasonable way to account for outbreaks separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, not to mention oceans.

Nearly 20 years ago, when Wisconsin’s chronic wasting disease outbreak was still confined to a small area, state officials were concerned that it could spread to new areas through the importation of elk from contaminated game farms in Colorado, South Dakota and Montana.

“We know that three captive elk from infected Colorado farms came to Wisconsin,” said Kerry Beheler, wildlife health specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2001. “That is why we annually test hunter-killed deer from areas surrounding those Wisconsin farms.”

Asked why Wisconsin still allowed game farms to import contaminated elk and deer into the state, knowing the danger of the disease spreading to the wild herd, Beheler replied, “We allow it because there is no law against it.”

At the time, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture regulated game farm deer and elk importation. Department officials offered the same rationale for continuing to allow a practice that clearly endangered Wisconsin’s captive and free-ranging deer herds.

In December 2015, the Missouri Department of Conservation tried to implement moderate, commonsense regulations to address the threat of spreading chronic wasting disease by transshipment of deer and elk. The captive-cervid industry filed suit, and within months a sympathetic judge enjoined the department from enforcing its regulations, effectively putting the agency out of the business of regulating captive cervids. The agency is currently waiting for the Missouri Supreme Court to decide whether it has authority to protect the state’s wild deer resource, which pumps $1 billion a year into the state’s economy, dwarfing the economic impact of the state’s canned hunting industry.

Thanks to “we don’t care” attitudes in many state agencies, and to legal maneuvers in others, chronic wasting disease has spread to 24 states and threatens to destroy a sport hunting tradition as old as our nation. But that isn’t the worst of it.

The ethically indefensible practice of shooting big game inside high fences also strikes at the very foundation of a conservation movement that has been envied and emulated worldwide. The North American Model of Conservation is based on the principle that the nation’s wildlife resources belong to all of us, collectively. Individuals may own lands and waters, but not the fish and wildlife in and on them. Those are held in trust by our governments and managed for the public good.

The notion that owners of pay-to-shoot operations should be able to privatize wildlife while simultaneously destroying public resources should outrage hunters and anyone else interested in preserving our wild legacy. If the government agencies we set up to manage and protect our wildlife are unwilling or unable to do so, hunters must take up the challenge or tell our children to sell their rifles, bows and shotguns and take up golf.

If you are committed to the future of hunting, don’t merely monitor the spread of chronic wasting disease. Dig into this issue and take it to your audiences with a call to action. Interview your state’s wildlife officials and tell your audience where they stand — or where they refuse to take a stand — on the issue.

Urge your readers, viewers or listeners to hold their conservation agencies and elected officials accountable for inaction on the biggest threat to wildlife in decades. For more information, you can send them to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance’s website (http://cwd-info. org/).

The time for monitoring is past. It’s time for action. ♦

Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Jade of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Jade of Chiefs honorees are considered OWAA’s conservation council. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor. 

George Harrison won the Jade of Chiefs award in 1981 and the Ham Brown award in 2006. He served as OWAA president in 1985. Harrison, a nature journalist, wrote a monthly column for Sports Afield for 25 years; was an editor for National Wildlife for 42 years and a founding editor of Birds & Blooms. He has authored 14 books and hosted six PBS specials.

Jim Low joined the Circle of Chiefs in 2009. His career included stints as a general assignment reporter, magazine editor and as a public information officer for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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