Move on deer importing may be too late

March 9, 2002 Houston Chronicle by Shannon Tompkins
Texas wildlife officials propose sealing the state's borders to importation of white-tailed deer as part of a program they hope helps prevent the state's private and public deer herds from being exposed to Chronic Wasting Disease, a close relative of the more well-known Mad Cow Disease.

But, officials admit, the move may be too late to prevent CWD-infected deer from entering the state and potentially devastating Texas' $2 billion deer hunting and deer ranching industry.

While no cases of CWD have been documented in Texas, the state has no monitoring program targeting discovery of infected deer, either in penned or wild herds.

And thousands of deer, some from states with CWD in their herds, have been imported into Texas over the past several years.

"Right now, we don't know if we have CWD in Texas," said Jerry Cooke, director of TPWD's upland wildlife programs. "We know we've had no documented cases, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not here. But we certainly hope it's not."

Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, an untreatable, always-fatal disease affecting the brain, has been spreading as deer and elk have been moved around the nation by buyers and breeders.

First identified in penned deer and elk Colorado in the 1960s, CWD was initially noted in the state's wild deer population in the mid-1980s. Since then it has spread to wild populations in Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Saskatchewan and, just announced this past week, Wisconsin.

It also has been identified in penned deer or elk herds in Oklahoma and Kansas.

CWD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, the same disease family as bovine spongiform enchephalopathy that causes the "Mad Cow Disease" that resulted in the slaughter of millions of head of livestock in Britain and killed approximately 80 humans [Over 100--BSE coordinator] who contracted BSE from infected meat.

So far, CWD has proved transmissible only to deer and elk. Most scientists believe the chance of it infecting cattle or humans is low, but note there is no definitive evidence to support that theory.

While CWD's effects are known -- it results in degeneration of brain tissue -- its causes and transmission are poorly understood by scientists.

But it is obvious that CWD-infected deer can and have passed the disease to other deer, particularly when many animals are in close quarters or high concentrations such as those seen in many deer ranches.

It can take years for the disease to manifest itself in an animal, and scientists do not know whether CWD is transmittable during that incubation period.

Until the recent documentation of CWD in two wild whitetail fawns in Nebraska, it seemed CWD affected only adult animals.

Also, no test is available to detect CWD in live animals. The only dependable CWD test involves use of brain tissue, and animals must be dead to take the tissue sample.

"This is an issue that scares every wildlife biologist to death," Doug Humphreys of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's wildlife division said of CWD's spread and its little-understood methods of transmission. "Not only do we not know how deer get it, we don't know how to get rid of it."

The Texas Animal Health Commission this past November ordered a prohibition on importing deer and elk from Colorado.

But TAHC and TPWD officials, who have been working together to address the CWD issue, are looking for a more effective way to prevent any CWD-infected deer from entering the state.

While TAHC is moving toward passing regulatory changes that will give the agency's executive director authority to unilaterally take action that could include prohibiting import of deer and elk from other states, it will take at least a few months for any such change to be approved by the agency's commission.

In the interim, TPWD is moving to "suspend" deer imports until TAHC is in a position to take the regulatory lead.

Under TPWD proposals published in the March 1 issue of the Texas Register and set for consideration April 4 by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, the agency would cease issuing permits allowing deer to be imported into the state.

Any out-of-state deer already in the state at the time of the ban taking effect would not be affected by the prohibition.

If the commission approves the proposal, the import ban could take effect as early as April 25.

Currently, almost anyone owning deer habitat can obtain a TPWD-issued permit allowing them to purchase and import deer from out-of-state. Most of those permits are obtained by some of the 450 or so individuals in Texas holding TPWD-issued "scientific breeder permits."

Most of the private landowners and permitted deer breeders obtain those animals in an effort to produce buck deer with large antlers, a commodity that can bring the deer's owner tens of thousands of dollars should the buck be used for breeding, sold to another breeder or sold to a person wanting to shoot a heavy-antlered deer.

Over the past decade, thousands of deer have been imported into Texas from other states.

The pace of importation has accelerated in past months as Texas wildlife and animal health officials have voiced concerns about the possibility some of those imported deer could be carrying Chronic Wasting Disease.

That concern intensified over the past two weeks as wildlife officials in Wisconsin reported finding CWD in that state's wild deer herd.

Since 1996, Wisconsin's natural resource agency has conducted disease testing on blood and tissue samples from deer taken by hunters.

Of the approximately 400 hunter-killed deer checked this past season, three have tested positive for CWD so far, Wisconsin officials announced this past week. All three animals were taken from a two-county area near Madison.

The findings, the first CWD cases east of the Mississippi River, shocked state wildlife officials. The closest confirmed cases of CWD in deer had been more than 900 miles away, in Nebraska and South Dakota.

But Wisconsin, like Texas, holds hundreds of "game farms" where owners import and release deer and elk bought from other states.

A Wisconsin wildlife official in 1998 had alerted supervisors in that state's Department of Natural Resources, its agriculture agency and the governor's office that unless the state issued a moratorium on importation of all "game farm animals," they risked a CWD outbreak.

That warning went unheeded.

Julia Langenberg. Wisconsin DNR veterinarian and administrator of its deer testing program, told the Denver Post that she is certain CWD's arrival in her state's deer herd was "human assisted," indicating it arrived via imported animals.

About half the states in the United States currently prohibit importation of deer and/or elk -- seven prohibit importation of all "cervids," and 17 outlaw importation of white-tailed deer.

That number is certain to grow as states such as Texas, which has had a liberal deer importation policy, begin considering sealing their borders to deer imports.

"I would not be surprised to see a lot of other states take steps to address deer imports in the wake of what's been happening over the past year," said TPWD's Humphreys. "This (CWD) has a lot of people shaking in their boots."

It also has a lot of Texas deer importers apparently rushing to get out-of-state deer into the state before any prohibition takes effect.

In the 12-month period immediately prior to members of the TPW Commission this past summer first publicly voicing concern over deer imports, TPWD issued permits authorizing 470 white-tailed to be brought into Texas from other states.

During the January-February 2001 reporting period, before talk of an import ban, deer importers hauled 92 out-of-state deer into Texas.

During the just-ended January-February 2002 reporting period, that number jumped to 243 deer, a 150 percent increase.

Those nearly 250 deer came from a dozen states and a Canadian province.

Two loads of them came from Wisconsin.

Shannon Tompkins

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