Why this deer disease could change the way Americans hunt forever

DETROIT — Despite rain and snow, thousands of Michigan hunters dragged their deer to check stations to be tested for chronic wasting disease — a condition that comes from the same family as “mad cow” disease. 

“I was amazed that we had 150 deer come through the check station on the first day of gun season in Montcalm County," said Chad Stewart, Michigan Department of Natural Resources deer specialist. "Given the Wednesday opener and the bad weather, I was blown away."

Dollars generated from deer licenses and hunting-related purchases bring in millions in matching funds for habitat restoration and endangered species. They also help fund the testing for CWD, a demon of a disease that has been identified in 11 free-ranging Michigan deer and is feared to be on the verge of crossing over to humans. It just might alter the way we hunt forever.

“When they look back on the history of deer management in Michigan, these years will be considered pivotal to the culture of deer hunting," said Stewart. “I don’t want people to think it’s a death sentence for deer management.

"For now, there will be changes and additional restrictions. Change is hard to adapt to.”

For almost two decades, the direction of hunting regulations has been inspired by hopes of more meat and bigger racks, letting deer grow to an older age by placing restrictions on shooting them when they’re young.

The prior generation of deer hunters generally found shooting a very
young buck preferable to the taboo taking of a doe. Modern hunters tend to do the opposite. These days, “Let them go and let them grow” is the order of the day. It’s on billboards and magazines, Facebook pages and T-shirts.

Not everyone agrees this herd management system should be codified. In some places, the topic just might spark a brawl.  Nonetheless, many counties are regulated with minimum antler-point restrictions, which are designed to get hunters to pass on younger deer and shoot does. Just this year, a slew of new counties added APRs in Michigan. 

Now, there’s a twist: the deer that so far have tested positive for chronic wasting disease in Michigan are younger on average. And if allowed to grow, they would be shedding this indestructible disease in their feces, saliva and urine for that much longer.

Where does this leave the "let them grow" strategy so many of us have supported?

Letting the disease spread is not an option. Here’s why:

There's increasing concern CWD, a prion disease similar to mad cow, eventually could cross the species barrier and spread to humans. Many scientists think it's not a matter of if, but a matter of when. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns not to eat the meat of contaminated deer.

Antibiotics don't kill it. Cooking doesn't kill it.

Mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) ultimately spread via contamination from nervous tissue. Yet hundreds of millions of meals of beef were consumed before it adapted to a human host and killed more than a hundred people before science caught on.

It’s possible CWD already has made the leap — comparable prion diseases have incubated for decades before dementia-like symptoms were recognized.

In 2002, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel identified two Minnesota men who developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob, the human mad cow variant, after years of eating wild game from CWD-contaminated regions. The medical community can’t prove it’s related, but the odds of two friends getting it randomly are astronomically slim. A third friend was said to have died of Pick's disease, a more common brain disorder, though it's possible his diagnosis was an error.

CWD originated from sheep. Elk, mule deer and  whitetails also are susceptible. Hunters in Kentucky contracted a version of spongiform encephalopathy from squirrels in the 1990s.

CWD prions survive for years, whereas most viruses and bacteria have a lifespan of hours or days. Prions, which are damaged protein particles, cling to plant roots and stems where deer have been eating or defecating, without washing away.

What should happen?

Stewart believes the only way to manage the disease is teamwork, and he says hunters are providing it.

“There’s no way the DNR can do it themselves," Stewart said. "We had almost 400
hunters show up at a meeting in Montcalm County. They asked such intelligent questions; they were so engaged and supportive. It was honestly one of the most inspiring meetings I’ve ever been to," he said.

Meanwhile, scientists at Michigan State College of Veterinary Medicine are trying to get a handle on the situation.

Of the 11 free-ranging deer identified with CWD in Michigan, five were in Ingham County, four in Clinton County, and two in Montcalm County (three more deer in Montcalm are also suspected to have it). "If those three are recognized as positive, then what took us three years to get to in Ingham County, it will have taken us three weeks to get to in Montcalm," said Stewart.

Three CWD-infected deer have been identified in agricultural deer facilities, one in 2008 in Kent County and two this year in Mecosta County. These fall into the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, not the DNR, according to Michigan DNR wildlife chief Russ Mason. 

As for antler-point restrictions, Missouri Wildlife Division Chief Jason Sumners has faced a similar dilemma.

"In 2004 we initiated APRs in 29 counties. The intent was to shift harvest, to apply more pressure to does," Sumners said. "It became the most popular regulation we had in those areas, because within three years, they were seeing larger deer. Seventy-five to 80 percent of hunters liked it. That's a good day when you can get that many hunters to agree on anything."

Then CWD struck. "We found CWD in 2010 in captive facilities and then in free-ranging deer," Sumners said. "We knew we had to change our approach."

APRs were rescinded in diseased counties. "Let them go and let them grow" went out the window. Sumner was concerned APR supporters would be dissatisfied. The results surprised him.

"We compared hunter attitudes between those that have the APRs versus those that are part of CWD management zone where younger deer are targeted.  Hunter satisfaction ratings of our deer management were identical."

And, he says, the changes haven't affected deer hunting participation.

"They understand how critical the situation is," said Sumners. "They
were willing to modify their behavior.""

Those who care about conservation generally will make the right choice and adapt, and then enjoy their precious time in the field. 

We've adapted from bows and muzzleloaders to firearms, from market hunting to licenses. Women, once excluded from hunting circles, are now a fast-growing and integral part of our community.

Change is not only doable, it's our destiny. 

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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