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Overview of America's Spreading
Mad Deer Disease Epidemic

August 2002

Progressive magazine
Who is to Blame for Mad Deer?
by Brian McCombie

The helicopter rises up over the ridge line, the noise of the rotors
scattering the targets below. But the snipers in the doorway already have
their scoped, high-powered rifles locked in, and the bullets fly until the
targets pitch forward, kicking and writhing in their death throes.

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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