We're losing this game
Farming deer and elk spreads diseases that could devastate
wild populations and threaten humans, say wildlife experts

April 30, 2002 Globe and Mail by Darrel Rowledge, Valerius Geist and Jim Fulton
For more than two years, Alberta game farmers have mounted an intensive lobby to legalize one of their primary markets--penned shooting operations.

The Alberta government had largely refused comment, despite its long promotion of the industry. That ended this month when Premier Ralph Klein said: "I find it abhorrent. . . . I just find it inhumane to have elk or wild animals penned and then people being allowed to shoot them."

Premier Klein's revulsion at the concept of "Bambi in a barrel" may have been news, but it misses the real issue, the potentially devastating effect of game farms on wildlife.

Similarly, Korea's ban on velvet antler imports because of CWD (chronic wasting disease) on North American game farms was grim news to the industry. Velvet, sold as an aphrodisiac and traditional remedy, is game farming's other main product. CWD was later confirmed in elk imported into Korea from Saskatchewan, reinforcing the legitimacy of their concern.

CWD is a sister disease to mad-cow disease, and this family of TSEs (transmissible spongiform encephalopathies) are chronic, untestable, untreatable and always fatal. Chronic wasting disease has now been confirmed on game farms across North America.

The costs of the epidemic are into the hundreds of millions and climbing. More important, the disease has not been contained and is spreading to wildlife. In fact, our wildlife is facing its greatest crisis in decades. Any hope of solving it means focusing on the cause: privatizing, domesticating and commercializing wildlife.

Game farming, by its very nature, fosters and spreads diseases, parasites, genetic pollution and poaching. It denies wildlife their habitat, and it contradicts the most basic tenets of wildlife conservation and resource economics.

The true scope of this crisis emerges only with perspective and context: Wildlife across North America had been all but exterminated by 1900. Bison, antelope, elk, deer, predators, song birds, shore birds and migratory birds had been decimated.

Thankfully, our governments accepted their responsibility; they identified commercial trafficking as the fundamental source of the problem, and they banned it. A continental effort over 80 years has seen this precious public resource restored--an achievement that stands as one of the greatest environmental successes in history.

We defeated this "tragedy of the commons" by making wildlife valuable only when alive. The new triumph of the commons resulted in wildlife-related industries--such as camping, hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching--which now generate $150-billion annually.

Game ranching requires a deliberate and complete reversal in direction and purpose--to establish, develop and promote markets and trafficking in private and dead wildlife. Worse, it seeks to domesticate it.

Domestication of wildlife significantly increases exposure and stress, which fosters and spreads disease. Over many centuries, cattle, sheep, pigs and other domestics have become extremely disease hardy. Scientists knew that bringing wildlife into intensive exposure to such diseases, and then transporting them across the continent, would build disease bridges into the wild--through fences, via escapes, and when wildlife enters game farms for feed or sex.

An epidemic of TB on game farms across Canada in the 1990s spread to cattle, pigs and people. A number of deer and at least 20 elk remain missing from infected or quarantined game farms. The outbreak not only cost taxpayers tens of millions, it cost all of Canada TB-free status, valued by Agriculture Canada at $1-billion. People were alarmed at the news but they missed the cause. And the crisis has only gotten worse.

In addition to the recent confirmation of CWD in Alberta, more infected game farm herds have been found in Saskatchewan, where 8,000 animals have already been destroyed. Officials are scrambling because the new infections are supposedly unrelated to the relentless series of outbreaks that began in 1996. At least 227 elk have proven to be diseased on more than 40 game farms; the disease has been found outside the fences in two mule deer.

Chronic wasting disease has also been found on game farms in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Montana, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, where authorities were stunned to find it in 51 per cent of 154 captive whitetail deer. Just one of several CWD-infected game farms in Colorado shipped 400 exposed elk to 15 states. Colorado's governor is voicing concern over the threat to Colorado's multibillion-dollar wildlife economy.

Wisconsin, with some of the highest concentrations of deer in North America, has found CWD in 14 whitetail deer in the wild, and the state intends to test up to 15,000 deer this fall.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman has declared a "state of emergency" regarding CWD, but this is damage control that misses the real issue.

Game farming presents an unprecedented threat to wildlife, agriculture, our economies, and potentially to human health. There is no confirmed case of CWD infecting a human (it's called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people). We hope that the species barrier will prevent people from being infected, along with the fact that the most likely source of infection (brains, spinal chord, blood, lymphatic glands, rumen and intestines) are not typically eaten from venison (unlike the case with beef in Britain).

But in vitro experiments demonstrate that CWD and BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease) prions transform healthy human prions at the same rate. And in Britain, over 100 people have now died of variant CJD from eating BSE-infected beef.

Despite public pleas from the time CWD was first confirmed on game farms in 1996, antler velvet has continued to be sold for human consumption. Industry statements that the heat of drying velvet would sterilize it were misleading. Prions are extremely resilient, and have remained infectious after being reduced to ash at 600 C. Even when it was confirmed that velvet was sold from animals proven diseased, neither the industry nor government made any attempt to recall it, or even warn customers.

Containing this disaster requires immediate action. We need a national moratorium on game farming, an immediate suspension on the movement or sale of all game farm related products, and a judicial inquiry to establish the extent of the problem and how it happened.

This will allow us to examine the entire issue of privatizing and commercializing wildlife in a comprehensive "environmental assessment with a public review," as has been promised by Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Darrel Rowledge is director of the Alliance for Public Wildlife, Valerius Geist is professor emeritus and former head of environmental science at the University of Calgary, and Jim Fulton is executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation.

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