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Are Hunters Unknowingly Spreading Disease?

April 26, 2002 Alberta Outdoorsmen Magazine by Rob Miskosky
The heat of another early morning had me troubled; the elk had hunkered down and no bugling could be heard . . . again. I had hoped this day would be different, though it appeared I would be wrong. And so I began my morning ritual for the third straight day of our week-long hunt - packing my backpack with a light lunch and a couple small juice packs, then loading my rifle and ensuring the safety was on before a final check to make sure I had all I needed and, after bidding good luck to my partners, I was off.

On this day I would work my way down a cutline that accessed the area I wanted to hunt. The cutline was just a short distance from our camp so it wasn't long before I was a few hundred yards into it. At this point I stopped and prepared the scent stick I had in my pocket. This particular brand was called "Elk Herd" and had been formulated using "a blend of fecal matter and urines from all the animals in the herd." A friend had given it to me and I thought why not try it? For three days I had faithfully spread the scent stick on my clothes, the sides and bottoms of my boots; I'd rubbed it on trees, fallen logs, high grasses and just about anywhere and everywhere I had been . . . with no luck.

Later, on another trip in a different WMU, I did the same with another product made by the same company. This time I was hunting deer and using the brand called "Deer Herd." I used Deer Herd on three different occasions hunting two different WMUs. In total, during 2001, I'd hunted three different WMUs using the scent sticks of both elk and deer, spreading the farm-collected scent wherever I went.

This wasn't the first time I had tried scents. In fact, like most hunters I'd used various types of attractant and cover scents over the years, applying them liberally to not only my clothing, but also to the ground and foliage in areas I thought pertinent for use during a hunt.

It was near the beginning of April of this year when it was brought to my attention the ambitions of a deer farmer looking to expand into the hunting scent market. My first thought was that at least he wasn't trying to push canned hunts, but then, for some reason, during a conversation with friends, we made a correlation between the sudden outbreak of chronic wasting disease and this game farmer's plans. And the more I thought about it, the more horrified I became.

I began to leaf through all the information I had gathered about CWD and four, very scary facts kept jumping out at me. The first was the fact that the agents, called prions, that scientists blame for this disease are very resilient (unlike bacteria or viruses, prions aren't even alive); it is believed they can remain viable in the soil for many years unharmed and that it requires incineration of infected animals in a heat higher than 600 degrees Celsius to effectively destroy these mutant proteins.

The second scary fact was how this disease is believed to be transmitted. Everything I had read kept repeating the same thing; infected deer and elk probably transmit the disease laterally through animal-to-animal contact and/or contamination of feed or water sources with saliva, urine, and/or feces.

The third scary fact was in the length of time it takes for CWD to become present in an infected animal (up to 1 1/2 years) and the lack of an economical testing procedure on live animals. Fourth, scientific journals confirm that TSE prions have repeatedly been found in urine, and they're present long before any signs the animal is diseased.

So, is it not plausible that urine and fecal matter collected from deer and elk farms and used in the manufacture of deer and elk scents could contain prions that make up chronic wasting disease? Why hadn't someone asked this question before? Or if they had, why hadn't I heard about it?

In an email I received from Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, I was told "Body fluids of deer and elk have been identified by veterinarians as a potential source of chronic wasting disease infections." I was also told " . . . it does raise concerns if deer urine from CWD infected herds goes into commerce. Healthy deer should not be in touch with body fluids from infected herds or areas where CWD has been found."

According to Margo Pybus, Wildlife Disease Specialist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife, there is no data or science regarding the transmission of CWD through the use of hunting scents. She does say though that, "This is not to say this isn't a possible way for it to move around."

Now, I don't want to be the alarmist here, or the paranoid hunter, but I have to stress the fact that until more is known about CWD it is best to err on the side of caution. If these prions can remain in soil for several years, or require substantial amounts of heat to destroy them, why couldn't they remain in the mixtures created by scent makers? And, if they are capable of this survival, are we hunters using these scents in fact spreading CWD each and every time we spray or wipe a scent on the bottom of our boots or on the side of a tree or in the freshly dug dirt of a buck's scrape?

Based on the length of time it takes for CWD to become present in an infected animal, much urine and fecal matter could be collected and put on the market for sale by a scent maker/game farmer. If this farm were suddenly stricken by CWD, would there be somebody out there tracing or recalling the sold scents? By my estimation this would be too little, too late.

"Concern about deer scents have been brought up for a number of years but so far nobody has directly dealt with it," said Elizabeth Williams, world-renowned leader in chronic wasting disease research and Professor of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Wyoming. "At this time, of course, it (the spread of CWD by the use of hunting scents) is a theoretical risk."

I would suggest somebody deal with it and deal with it soon. While many borders have been closed to imports of game farmed deer and elk because of CWD, the products derived from these same animals, namely lures and scents, are freely transported across borders for commerce.

With more than 50 different game farms confirmed with CWD infection, in hundreds of animals, how many have been involved in the manufacture and sale of lures and/or scents?

The premier has agreed that penned shooting operations are "abhorrent," so will desperate game farmers be racing to enter the lure and scent market - even though CWD has now been confirmed in Alberta? Are there any regulations at all regarding this market?

Is it even possible to guarantee safe scents and/or lures from game farms?

What other diseases and parasites might be spread by these products?

Are hunters unknowingly spreading CWD?

In any case, why are we even taking these kinds of chances?

These are just a few of the questions that need answered, and answered soon. Chronic wasting disease has suddenly, like an out-of-control brush fire, begun sweeping the continent. Wisconsin may be in for the biggest shock with the discovery of CWD in its wild herds. Wisconsin has a deer population unheard of, well more than a million deer inhabit this small state with as many as 450,000 to 600,000 taken annually by hunters. The state, like Alberta, is currently undertaking a kill program in and around the infected area.

In Nebraska more than half of the white-tailed deer on an 800-acre game farm have tested positive for CWD. This number is absolutely staggering with the latest results showing 79 positives out of 154 deer with more heads to be tested. Nebraska, like Wisconsin, has a tremendous deer population, and with deer in such concentrated numbers, the chance of CWD spreading begins to increase exponentially. In Colorado, wildlife commissioners unanimously approved the killing of about 4,500 deer over the next two to five years to contain CWD, and in early February of this year, South Dakota announced their first case of CWD in wild deer.

There is no proof of CWD being transmitted to humans, however, there is evidence of some risk, and we should avoid contact with sick-looking animals. It is also suggested that the disease is not present in the meat or muscle tissue of deer and elk, however, we should avoid eating the meat, again, from a sick-looking animal until it has been tested. In the time it takes for CWD to take a healthy animal and turn its brain to sponge, the animal may not exhibit any signs of CWD infection, so, what to do? We can't all line up and wait for our results to come in . . . can we?

The fact of the matter is that too little is known about chronic wasting disease. Because of this we have to act cautiously, and if this means the lure or scent in your hunting supplies remains unused, so be it. Deer and elk lures and scents probably play a bigger role in leading us to believe they are valuable tools when in fact they are probably not.

So, without anybody looking at the possibility of deer and elk lures and scents carrying prions that ultimately lead to CWD, hunters should act on their own until such time tests can prove otherwise. As suggested by Darrel Rowledge, Director of Alliance for Public Wildlife, hunting equipment retailers must be advised of this potential problem and advised caution in their purchasing. Government must also be advised of the potential problem, they should initiate an immediate investigation, and, pending the results, recall lures and scents.

Hunters must also be made aware of the potential for the spread of CWD through the use of these products and analysis of these products must take place. After all, the future of our retailers, our hunting future, and the face of this government depend on a healthy public wildlife - a resource that has to be protected at all costs. If this means an end to game farming, then so be it. I lay not the blame at the feet of the game farmer, but rather at the feet of our government to allow, with little or no thought of the possible risks, for this industry to exist. The negatives far outweigh the positives in every aspect.

I submit that if this government were to buy out the game farmers in this province using taxpayer dollars, the savings now, compared to where we are headed, would be astronomical and worth every penny spent. If you don't believe me, just look at our neighbours to the east. This thing has gotten way out of hand, and it is now time to put an end to this high-stakes poker game being played out with our wild deer and elk herds. Are hunters unknowingly spreading CWD?

Only time will tell.

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