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Chronic wasting disease could be big ailment for economy

June 15, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Tim Renken
If a significant number of people quit hunting deer because they fear Chronic Wasting Disease, North America faces an environmental catastrophe and a financial body blow.

The damage that deer in large numbers do is well-documented. They devour forest understory and eventually eliminate most edible flora. They eat and trample crops. The nation now has some 19 million deer. Sport hunting has proved to be the only way to keep deer populations under control. Some 11.3 million sport hunters kill about 6 million deer in North America each year. People hunt for fun and meat. As hunters already have demonstrated in Wisconsin and Colorado, many will quit hunting if they believe that they and their families are at risk from CWD.

Arrival here is only a matter of time

CWD is a relatively new disease of deer and elk. It has been found in captive deer and elk in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. It has been found in wild deer and elk in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Wisconsin.

Its discovery last month in Wisconsin set off alarms throughout the Midwest and shook a state where deer hunting is almost a religion. Everywhere extensive testing has been done, CWD has shown up. Most wildlife authorities believe it already is in Pennsylvania and New York. Its arrival in Missouri and Illinois is probably just a matter of time. Illinois' border is less than 20 miles from the Wisconsin infection site.

Huge deer-shoots to thin and even wipe out deer are under way in parts of four states. Government sharpshooters in aircraft are being used in some places. Wildlife and health officials in Wisconsin hope to kill at least 115,000 deer in the infection area. Colorado authorities are trying to kill 5,000 deer and elk to stop or at least slow the spread of the disease.

Wildlife and health officials in all deer states are taking steps against CWD. All have banned the importation of deer or elk. State legislatures and even Congress are providing money for the battle.

The Department of Conservation in Missouri and the Department of Natural Resources in Illinois are developing contingency plans for controlling an outbreak should it occur. CWD, always fatal to its victims, is closely related to Mad Cow Disease in cattle and scrappie in sheep. It also resembles a rare brain/nerve disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, in humans. But there is no strong evidence that CWD is a threat to livestock or humans.

Nobody knows how CWD is spread. There is no way to diagnose it except postmortem and then only in a costly, time-consuming process. CWD remains in an environment long after the victims have been removed, even after that environment has been sterilized. There is no immunity to CWD because the abnormal proteins believed to cause it do not trigger an immune response. Without hunting, deer will proliferate everywhere, their numbers quadrupling in 10 years. In the virtual absence of cougars and wolves, deer have no other natural predators.

Overpopulation will devastate ecosystems

Many people already have said they will quit hunting deer. A survey of hunters in Wisconsin found that almost half had concerns about eating wild venison and 36 percent said they probably would not hunt this fall. The World Health Organization has recommended against eating venison from infected deer. Almost all of the southern Wisconsin landowners who participated in the collection of deer for testing in May discarded the venison rather than taking it home to eat.

The devastation caused by deer is described in an article in the March issue of Audubon, the magazine of the Audubon Society. The headline reads, "Wanted: More hunters. The U.S. whitetail population is out of control. Not only are deer starving by the thousands, they're laying waste to entir e ecosystems. There is only one solution." That solution is hunting, according to Ted Williams, author of the article and Audubon's editor-at-large.

Williams cites the many efforts of deer control via so-called nonlethal methods and notes that none has ever worked. And to the readers of Audubon, most of which are birders, he describes the devastation caused by deer overpopulation.

"In a 10-year experiment, the U.S. Forest Service found that at more than 20 deer per square mile you lose your eastern wood pewees, indigo buntings, least flycatchers, yellow-billed cuckoos and cerulean warblers," he writes. "At 38 deer per square mile, you lose eastern phoebes and even robins. Ground nesters like ovenbirds, grouse, woodcock, whippoorwills and wild turkeys can nest in ferns, which deer scorn, but these birds, too, are vastly reduced, because they need thick cover."

In a similar article in the Atlanta Constitution, Williams called deer "the most dangerous and destructive wild animal in America."

"White-tailed deer kill, maim and sicken thousands of people each year. In Pennsylvania, one of the few states keeping tabs, deer annually destroy $70 million worth of crops and $75 million worth of trees, and about 40,000 of them collide with motor vehicles, doing $80 million worth of damage. They wipe out wildflowers, mid-level plant communities, shrub-nesting birds."

The toll of deer-auto collisions in Pennsylvania is similar to that in many states, including Missouri and Illinois. On average, more than 29,000 human injuries and 211 deaths occur nationally due to deer-vehicle collisions. Deer also are a major source of Lyme disease.

Another fallout if large numbers of people quit hunting deer is the cost to state wildlife agencies. Sale of deer tags brings about $11 million a year to the Missouri Department of Conservation. In most states, deer tags are the largest single source of funding for fish and game agencies.

And there will be a huge impact on businesses that are based on deer hunting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996 estimated that 312,000 jobs are impacted by deer hunting and that each year the national economic impact of big-game hunting, mostly for deer, is $27.8 billion.

Ollie Torgerson, chief of wildlife of the Missouri Department of Conservation, said this worry has been dragging on him for the two years since the CWD threat arose. "CWD is the biggest thing ever to come along for us," he said. "But it may be that the fear of CWD will be far more damaging than the disease itself if that fear causes people to quit hunting."

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