Deer hunters could be spreading lethal germs

May 6, 2002 National Post by Robert Remington
CALGARY - Hunters may be unwittingly spreading Chronic Wasting Disease by using deer scents made from the urine of infected animals in game farms, some scientists and hunting advocates fear.

The packaged scents, spread on the ground by hunters to lure quarry, could contain prions, the resilient agent scientists blame for CWD, an illness related to mad cow disease that is associated with animals in fenced game farms.

Although the link between deer scents and CWD has not been studied, several experts say there is a "theoretical risk" that CWD could be spread by the deer attractants.

Rob Miskosky, editor of Alberta Outdoorsmen, says some game farmers are packaging deer scents to diversify in an industry tainted by outbreaks of CWD and reeling from bans on shooting captive animals and collapsed Asian markets for elk antler velvet. One consortium of Alberta game farmers is constructing a facility capable of collecting 1,000 ounces of urine a day from deer.

Norm Moore, a game farmer and industry spokesman, dismisses the concerns, saying the industry is strictly monitored for disease.

"We have an identification and tracking system that is second to none in agriculture," he said.

Although packaged scents are not tested for safety, Mr. Moore says health precautions undertaken by game ranchers make it unlikely any disease would be associated with the packaged urine.

"I don't think there are any regulations specifically for that product, but [game farm] herds would have to be on the normal health program or they couldn't have the animals," Mr. Moore said.

Darrel Rowledge, director of the advocacy group Alliance for Public Wildlife, says it is astonishing that such products, which have been used by hunters for decades, are released into the marketplace untested. Hunters spread the scents, made from a combination of urine and feces, on their boots and clothing and on trees, branches, rock, grasses and the ground.

Mr. Miskosky, writing in the current edition of Alberta Outdoorsmen, says scientific journals confirm that TSE prions, the mutant protein that causes CWD, have been found in urine long before the disease is detected in animals and could remain viable in soil for years. Destroying the prions requires incineration of an infected animal in temperatures higher than 600 Celsius.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is investigating one case of CWD in Alberta. Dr. George Luterbach, a CFIA veterinarian, said all 72 animals on the infected farm will be destroyed and that a compensation package is being worked out with the rancher. In Saskatchewan, about 8,000 elk from game farms were destroyed last year after an outbreak of the disease, which was confirmed in more than 200 animals.

The cost to federal taxpayers of controlling the Saskatchewan outbreak has been estimated by one animal rights group at $60-million, including compensation to the affected game farmers.

Dr. Luterbach said the agency is also waiting for lab test results on 12 animals from the infected Alberta farm that were sold to other game ranchers. If the tests come back positive, it is likely all the animals on the other farms will also be destroyed, he said.

There have also been outbreaks of CWD in Colorado, Wisconsin, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Some jurisdictions, including Manitoba and Wyoming, have banned game farming.

Hunters fear infections from captive herds will spread to the wild, severely affecting the multi-billion-dollar-a-year hunting industry. The disease, which kills animals by turning their brains to mush, has never been transferred across the species barrier to humans.

The game farming industry says it is unfairly blamed for CWD. Mr. Moore says the disease started in the wild in Colorado, spread into a zoo and was then passed into captive herds when a stricken zoo animal was sold to a game farm, where it spread among the contained herd. The industry's stringent testing makes it a lightning rod for CWD because its detection system is unmatched by public wildlife administrators, he said.

Game farmers sell the meat of wild game such as deer and elk -- which is low in fat and cholesterol -- to restaurants.

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