Hype or Deathly Seriously?
Roughly five years have passed since chronic wasting disease first reared its ugly head on Texas soil. That’s when sample collections and testing of more than two dozen free ranging mule deer in far West Texas turned up a pair of positive CWD cases, putting state wildlife officials on high alert for other deer carrying a disease that they had always hoped would never get here.
The discovery didn’t come as much of a surprise, though. It came just months after New Mexico wildlife officials had notified Texas Parks and Wildlife that CWD had been detected in three New Mexico mulies harvested near the border during the 2011 hunting season.
Wishful thinkers originally hoped the incident would remain isolated to the Hueco mountain range in the rugged Trans-Pecos, where deer populations are sparse compared with other regions of the state. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
Despite the continued testing of thousands of free-ranging deer and captive animals held in breeder pens, and the implementation of surveillance programs aimed at early detection—containment methods that had been ongoing since the CWD threat prompted Texas to close its borders to the importation of deer in the early 2000s—CWD somehow managed to leapfrog nearly 500 miles southeast to a whitetail deer breeding operation in Medina County, where a two-year old deer tested positive for the disease in June 2015.
When subsequent testing turned up three additional CWD positives at the Medina County facility, a heightened testing criteria and broadened search area located even more positive cases at other breeding facilities in Medina and Lavaca counties as well as a Medina County ranch release site. To date, 35 CWD positive cases have been documented in Texas, including 26 white-tailed deer linked to breeding facilities and nine free-ranging mule deer, according to TPWD researchers.
CWD: What is it?
CWD is a nasty, neurological disorder that affects deer, elk and other cervids. Progressive but slow-moving in nature, the disease can be spread by animal-to-animal contact or through contact with a contaminated environment. Researchers say an animal may carry CWD for years without indication, but in the latter stages signs may include listlessness, lowering of the head, weight loss, repetitive walking in set patterns, and a lack of responsiveness. The disease isn’t believed to pose a risk to humans or domestic animals.
First recognized 50 years ago in captive mule deer in Colorado, CWD has since been documented in captive and/or free-ranging deer in 23 states as well as Canada. Though opinions vary as to how contagious it is, many scientists agree that CWD is always fatal once contracted and that eradication is next to impossible once the disease becomes well established in a population. It is also believed that, left unchecked, CWD can lead to a decline in deer numbers over time.
“It’s an additional mortality factor,” says Clayton Wolf, TPWD Wildlife Division director. “Deer die from coyotes, road kill, hunting, etc… When CWD is in one percent of your population it’s probably not measurable. But the disease prevalence continues to grow through time in populations where it becomes established. We believe there is a good chance that if CWD got imbedded in a wild population, and was left unchecked, that the prevalence would grow through time and we would see increased mortality and lower deer numbers.”
Wolf says it is already happening in some states. He said some of the best studies on white-tailed deer have been done in Wyoming, where prevalence rates as high as 30-40 percent have been documented.
For that reason, TPWD, the Texas Animal Health Commission and other state agencies have always believed that early detection, prevention and education are the best policies when it comes protecting all Texas deer as well as the cash cows that they feed.
“It’s all about protecting the deer, whether they are behind a high fence, in a breeding operation or free ranging out on the landscape,” Wolf said. “Deer hunting in Texas is a more than $2 billion industry, and deer breeding is a segment of that.”
To date, CWD has not been detected in Texas’s free-ranging whitetail deer herd. And guys like Wolf, along with millions of hunters, land managers, landowners, wildlife biologists, outdoors enthusiasts and conservation organizations on the state and national level had just as soon keep it that way.
No doubt there are going to be some big time challenges presented along the way, largely because there is no known cure for CWD and live/ post-mortem testing methods used to detect it are not always 100 percent accurate.
Post-mortem testing is usually performed extracting lymph nodes from the lower jaw area of the dead animal, while recently-approved live testing is usually done by sampling rectal or tonsil tissue after darting the animal. Experts say the latter usually comes with a price tag of $60-130, depending on how much trouble is involved in process.
Between 2002 and 2012, TPWD claims it tested more than 26,500 wild deer and the deer breeding industry tested more than 7,400 animals. The state last year ramped up its testing efforts, sampling more than 10,000 hunter-harvested whitetail deer and road kills statewide. Meanwhile, Texas’s 1,300 deer breeders tested significantly more, according to Patrick Tarleton, executive director of the Texas Deer Association, an Austin-based organization largely vested in growing the big antlers that drive the state’s 650-million-dollar deer breeding industry.
“The Texas deer breeding industry has proven to be one the most tested industries in the entire country,” Tarleton said. “In fact, the Texas breeding industry tested almost 30,000 deer last year alone—that’s roughly 30 percent of 100,000 animals that are in pens and more than all the other breeders in all the other states combined.”
It’s worth noting that Texas deer breeders operate under somewhat different guidelines than those in other states. According to Wolf, all Texas deer, even those raised in privately owned pens, are considered property of the state. Texas deer breeders are allowed to sell and trade deer among themselves and to the private sector for liberation (release) into wild herds on high fence properties.
In other states, deer that are sold for the purpose of hunting may only be transferred to shooting preserves or enclosures where no wild deer are present, Wolf said.
Not surprisingly, finding common ground with Texas deer breeders on CWD and how to best manage for it has thus far proven to be a challenge unto its own for TPWD. The issue churned up a firestorm of controversy and resistance soon after the first CWD positive turned up at the Medina County whitetail breeding facility.
TPWD moved quickly in response to the finding and implemented a set of “emergency rules” many deer breeders perceived as a heavy handed, overly-restrictive response to an isolated incident that threatened the deer breeding industry. In addition to restricting their ability to move and sell deer, the rules called for more testing and resulted in the depopulation of the breeding stock at two different breeding facilities.
Two deer breeders subsequently filed a lawsuit against TPWD in Travis County District Court, citing that the agency’s action plan violated their rights, and that the plan was developed “largely in secret, in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.”
The state’s CWD management plan rules have since been amended following a collaborative effort last summer between the TPWD, TAHC and deer breeding community to create a more agreeable set of guidelines while remaining cognizant to the fundamental issues at hand — protecting Texas’s vast hunting heritage, free-ranging and captive deer populations across the state, and the rich economy they support.
Key changes to the rules include:
• Establishing a minimum level of post-mortem testing in deer breeding facilities at 80 percent.
• Providing an opportunity for all captive deer breeders to “test-up” to Transfer Category 1 (TC1) status through 50 percent ante-mortem testing of their entire herd (a proposed May 15, 2017, testing deadline was eliminated from the rules) and breeders may choose their preferred ante-mortem testing means (rectal, lymph nodes, tonsillar etc.).
• Clarification that the five-year, 80 percent eligible mortality testing requirement to realize TC1 status may be obtained through testing a five-year average of annual mortalities and deer breeders may use a 3:1 ratio to substitute live tests for post-mortem tests to meet required testing thresholds.
• Property owners may request to expand release sites, provided release site requirements apply to the expanded acreage.
• Elimination of testing requirements on Trap, Transfer and Transplant (Triple T) release sites.
The new regulations also include the establishment of CWD management zones in the Trans-Pecos, Panhandle and Medina County areas where the disease has been detected. Hunters who harvest mule deer, white-tailed deer, or elk within the Trans-Pecos and Panhandle CWD Containment and Surveillance Zones are are required to bring their animals to a TPWD check station within 24 hours of harvest. TPWD urges voluntary sampling of hunter harvested deer in the Medina area CWD Surveillance Zone.
Wildlife officials say the ongoing collection of these samples combined with those collected from the state’s nearly three dozen Resource Management Units and Texas deer breeding operations should go a long way toward helping to determine the prevalence and geographic extent of the disease and to contain it in the areas where it is known to exist.
Wolf pointed out that there are people out there who are promoting the position that there is no harm in having CWD, but that’s not the message that TPWD wants to send.
“You certainly can’t sit back and do nothing,” Wolf said. “We know we’re not going to be able to cure the disease. That’s why we are putting so much emphasis on testing before movement. We are going to have challenges where CWD exists, but we had just as soon not increase the number of challenges if we can help it. There are no guarantees with testing, but it certainly increases the chances of detecting CWD before it gets moved into somebody’s backyard.”
Speaking on behalf of Texas’s 1,300 deer breeders, Tarleton said he does not cast blame on TPWD for its efforts to pinpoint and contain the spread CWD, even though the industry as whole did not agree with the regimen of restrictive rules it was handed to operate by. However, he thinks the cause could be better served if the state focused more on ramping up its testing to include more wild animals and more was done to educate the hunting public about the disease.
“Make no mistake, the Texas deer breeders did not agree with the rules that were passed, but we have been compliant with them,” Tarleton said. “We’re still complying with them and I think we have proven that the Texas deer breeding industry is a very clean industry. As we get through this, I think it is incumbent on my association, the wildlife community, the outdoor community, TPWD and TAHC to all start doing a better job of educating our communities about CWD. That’s what is important.
“There are people with the mentality because of the rhetoric that has been pushed that CWD is a frightful thing in Texas, but it is not,” Tarleton added. “I hope that doesn’t come off as being unconcerned, because it (CWD) is very real and should be monitored. But we can’t continue to scare the hunting community any longer. People need to go hunt. They need to go manage deer.”
Further details of CWD rule changes affecting specific artificial deer movement permits are available online at www.tpwd.texas.gov/cwd/.
—story by Matt Williams