Chronic Wasting Disease: Why Deer Farming Matters to Everyone
Why are eggs so expensive compared to what they cost even a year or so ago? It’s because avian influenza (bird flu) was detected in egg production facilities across the country and in an attempt to quash the outbreak before it could spread to other facilities or mutate and infect humans, more than 44 million chickens were killed. Fewer laying hens means fewer eggs and the basic economic premise of supply and demand kicked in driving up the cost of your breakfast omelet.
Why are cattle outfits and dairymen so vigilant to keep their herds free of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka mad cow disease? For much the same reason. One positive test in a herd of hundreds of animals can be a death sentence for the whole group.
These are drastic solutions, but it’s the only sure way to ensure diseases like these remain rare and eliminated before they can turn into an epidemic.
So why did the news come across my desk of a deer testing positive for chronic wasting disease being shot on a “deer farm” bother me? It's because it was the second CWD infected deer harvested on that farm this year, the first one several months ago.
Chronic wasting disease is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and a disease called scrapies affecting sheep and goats. Some speculate the first cases of CWD in deer were the result of captive deer being corralled in an enclosure once used to confine sheep. Some minor mutation in the prion that causes scrapies allowed it to infect deer.
There’s no cure for CWD and it appears the main vector for transmitting the disease is direct contact between an infected animal and a healthy deer. Deer and elk can also become infected by feeding in an area where a CWD infected animal roamed and the infective prions (proteins smaller than bacteria) may persist in an area for many years.
The bad news: CWD is always fatal. The good news is CWD, unlike mad cow, does not seem to affect humans who come in contact with infected deer or elk or eat meat from infected animals.
The jump from scrapies to CWD occurred in Colorado almost 50 years ago. It was confined to that general area for several decades, then it started springing up almost hopscotch-like in other areas of the country and it’s now endemic in 23 states. The smoking gun to this rapid spread was the growth of deer farms where elk and whitetail deer were confined, usually to be fodder for “shooting preserve” like hunts, but also to produce meat and deer by-products as an agricultural commodity.
Just as cattle breeders select the best bulls and cows to populate their farms, deer farmers selected for bucks that grew large antlers, does that produced large bodied, fast growing fawns and they did this by buying and trading select animals from other farms near and far. Eventually, a deer on a deer farm near CWD ground zero in Colorado became infected and animals from that farm were sold to a farm in South Dakota. The South Dakota animals
moved to other farms and the disease spread quickly.
To the deer farmer’s defense, in it’s early stages an infected animal looks normal. On the other hand, some deer farmers, once they spotted a likely infected animal in their herd, destroyed it and continued business as usual.
Compared to other livestock farms, deer farms were highly unregulated. When government agriculture departments attempted to regulate them, the farmers declared themselves exempt. They weren’t raising “domesticated” livestock. When state DNRs attempted to regulate them they declared themselves exempt because their captive deer were no longer “wild” creatures.
When wild deer and elk started showing up with CWD, there were always deer farms or a history of deer farms in the area. Once the disease is outside the fence, there’s no containing it.
Most states have now decided which agency needs to regulate deer farms but have shown a reluctance to shut them down or pass adequate regulations to keep the facilities CWD free. Thus my consternation about the same farm registering two infected deer, months apart and no doubt dozens or more of the 450 deer on the farm carrying the disease. If they’d been chickens with bird flu, the hatchet would have fallen months ago.