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How one disease caused a rift between deer farmers and the Department of Conservation

Testing from November confirmed chronic wasting disease is still in the state, but is it enough of a concern to warrant regulations on deer farmers?

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) confirmed three deer processed in Northern and Eastern Missouri counties Nov. 12 and 13 tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The findings came from the department’s mandatory sampling program efforts for last year’s deer hunting season which spanned 29 counties. Those three positive deer brought the total number of infected animals last year to five, out of almost 20,000 deer. Thirty-eight deer have now tested positive for the disease since MDC began monitoring CWD in Missouri.

MDC Wildlife Disease Coordinator Jasmine Batten noted the sampling efforts help the department track the disease and better contain it.

“This has been a huge undertaking and we greatly appreciate the help from participating hunters and businesses during our sampling efforts,” Batten said in a statement. “While it is disappointing to detect any CWD cases, overall the results to date are encouraging. Given the large number of deer tested and the small number of cases detected, CWD appears to remain relatively rare in the state.”

Reps. Jay Houghton and Sonya Murray Anderson, the chairs of the agriculture and conservation committees echo that same concern. Both concede while keeping an eye on CWD and checking its spread is important, it’s not necessarily a priority.

“While CWD is a concern, I don’t know that it’s as alarming as sometimes the public perception,” Anderson, R-Springfield, said, adding the disease CWD may not present as much of a threat as something like epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), a potentially fatal viral infection in white-tailed deer.

CWD in the General Assembly

Legislatively, CWD could become a major point of contention between the Department of Conservation and agriculture-focused lawmakers this session. Houghton, R-Martinsburg, and Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, have both filed legislation changing laws regarding captive cervids, namely changing the definition of livestock to include captive deer and making them easier to sell and transfer. Houghton notes elk have been classified as livestock since 1996. Similar bills were filed in the 2015 legislative session.

Rep. Jay Houghton
Rep. Jay Houghton

The bill helps the state’s growing number of deer farmers, but the MDC has resisted the bill primarily because of fears surrounding the potential transfer of CWD. Currently, the MDC oversees permits and licensing for captive cervid facilities, while also inspecting the fences and records of those facilities. The Department of Agriculture handles most other responsibilities like disease testing and animal movement.

“To me, it’s a control issue,” Houghton says. “The Department of Conservation feels they should have control over them.” But he worries their control could harm the many family farmers who have turned to deer farming and it could put them out of business.

Houghton and many deer farming advocates, like the Missouri Deer Association, note they respect the MDC’s efforts to limit the spread of CWD in wild populations, yet they believe the private sector can control it as well, if not better, than the MDC, at least in farmed populations. Jacques deMoss, president of the association, says deer farmers provide the first line of defense against CWD from affecting captive deer.

“The deer farmers, who have invested millions of their own dollars in acquiring and raising these deer, have a greater financial stake than anyone in seeing that they remain disease-free,” he said after a court case in September, adding “We fully support the Conservation Department’s efforts to control the spread of CWD in the wild population and hope that it continues to improve its surveillance of deer in the wild.”

The two sides have also gone to court to limit new rules and regulations proposed by the MDC they believe would stifle their business. The Missouri Deer Association won the aforementioned legal battle when a judge ruled CWD was not prevalent enough in Missouri to warrant the MDC’s regulations.

Why the fears around CWD?

As Anderson said, part of the reason CWD may have a bark worse than its bite stems from its similarity to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, as both are composed of prions. Prions, or misfolded proteins, cause the complete deterioration of the brain and nervous system, and diseases caused by prions have both a 100 percent fatality rate and are thus far incurable. CWD, mad cow, and some other notable spongiform encephalopathies occur in animals humans eat on a wide scale, especially in the United States. While there are no known cases of CWD spreading to humans, an outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain during the 1990s caused the deaths of over 200 people in Europe, the eradication of 4.4 million cattle and an export ban on British beef.

However, the spread of that outbreak occurred because farmers put the offal (including brains) of sheep (some probably infected with scrapie, another prion disease) into cattle feed to add protein to their diets. Controls in both cattle and deer at the federal level now ban that practice.

Yet again, there have been no confirmed cases of CWD making the leap to humans to become Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human prion disease.

In Missouri especially, the risk seems low. As stated previously, Missouri has only confirmed 38 cases of the disease while Arkansas has seen over 100 cases and in southern Wisconsin, roughly 30 percent of wild adult male deer have tested positive for the disease. For now, it remains in check here.

“It’s not something we don’t want to be concerned about, but on the other hand we don’t need to be making a mountain out of a molehill,” Houghton said.