It was just one white-tailed deer, but people in Missouri are spooked. That’s because in late February a single whitetail buck in central Missouri tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), a contagious, fatal brain infection. It was the state’s first-ever case, found in one animal among the state’s estimated 1.4 million deer.
The discovery prompted a swift reaction from the wildlife department. In fact, Missouri’s state and federal officials, who had been preparing for this moment for years, quickly quarantined the high-fence shooting ranch in Linn County where the sick whitetail was found. They hoped to quell the outbreak before it spread unchecked in the wild. “We have to be aggressive,” state veterinarian Taylor Woods said. “This all boils down to credibility.”
Worried About CWD
Outside the fence, worry consumed deer breeders and run hunting lodges — part of an estimated $4 billion a year industry in the United States. Oklahoma closed its borders to Missouri deer. So did Illinois. Then Louisiana and Indiana. One by one, states refused entry permits to people seeking to import deer from Missouri. All because of one whitetail buck.
“It’s sickening, the panic. What am I going to do?” said David Wood, who has been unable to move any deer from his breeding farm in Linn County since the outbreak.
Missouri joins 15 other states and two Canadian provinces where the disease has been found. Affected deer will look sick, but most of the animals now being discovered with the disease are outwardly healthy.
Researchers and industry officials say this is because they are looking more closely for outbreaks. Although testing cannot be done on live animals, many states test dead animals. Illinois found the disease in a single wild deer in 2002. Kansas found it first in 2006, and again last week with 10 deer testing positive.
Looking for CWD
“If you do enough sampling, you’re going to find it,” said Bill Pittenger, head of the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association.
Missouri began its statewide surveillance for chronic wasting disease in 2002. Not only to determine if it was already present in the state’s deer herd, but also to monitor cwd spread over state boundaries. It finally turned up at Heartland Wildlife Ranches in Ethel, Mo., 200 miles northwest of St. Louis.
Heartland is a high-end hunting operation, with a sprawling lodge set on 800 acres surrounded by 8-foot fences. Hunters come from across the country to take aim at trophy animals such as whitetail deer, elk and zebra. A three-day hunt for water buffalo costs $4,000.
The infected deer actually died last fall. Months later, as part of the state’s regular surveillance program, Heartland sent a specimen sample along with other samples to a federal lab in Iowa. On February 25, the test came back positive.
“I was disappointed. Worried. Surprised,” said Rob Brasher of Salt Lake City, whose family has owned Heartland for two decades. The positive test sent a shudder through Missouri’s 39 big-game hunting operations and 272 licensed deer breeders, whose operations provide hunters
with so-called shooting bucks.
The state’s deer industry supports the testing program, Pittenger said. But members also chafe at how regulators react to an outbreak. As one person complained on a deer hunter’s message board, the disease “is a lot like global warming,” suggesting that the response was making the problem seem worse than it really is.
Closing Borders to CWD
But government officials say drastic actions are needed to halt the march of a little-understood chronic wasting disease. Oklahoma’s state veterinarian made no apologies for shutting out deer from Missouri “as soon as we found out” about the positive test.
“Because we don’t have CWD in the state of Oklahoma, we need to protect our cervid breeders and our native whitetail population,” said Dr. Becky Brewer. Other states took similar action. Most states, including Oklahoma, have since eased those import restrictions to deer raised closer to Heartland, either in a surrounding county or within a 25-mile radius.
Missouri officials are now trying to determine the size of the outbreak. The 4-year-old infected buck spent its entire life at Heartland. The state agriculture department is running the investigation. Last weekend, 50 deer were killed at Heartland. Specimens were sent for testing. Results are expected Friday or early next week.
To see whether the infection jumped the fence line, another 150 wild deer are being culled in a five-mile radius around Heartland by the state Conservation Department.
“It’ll be interesting to see what comes with the second round of testing,” said Brasher, owner of Heartland. But any test results — positive or negative — will be of little solace for Wood, who runs the Linn County deer farm just 17 miles from Heartland.
Losing Everything to CWD?
Last year, the Linneus, Missouri, machinist decided to step up his small breeding program. He said he spent his savings and borrowed some more to buy a sturdy buck and quality does. He knew it was a gamble. But a baby deer can sell for $4,000 to $8,000. Some farmers have even turned to laparoscopic artificial insemination to generate deer herds.
But after that one positive test, it no longer mattered that Wood had taken part in the state’s disease surveillance program since its inception. Or that he de-wormed and vaccinated his deer. Or that it would seem almost impossible for the infection to have spread to his animals.
His deer farm was simply too close to Heartland for cautious buyers and regulators. He was being blacklisted. “There is no bright spot for me. This is most likely going to be a financial ruin for me.”
Symptoms of CWD
CWD was first identified in a deer in Colorado in 1967. Affecting deer, elk and moose, it is classified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, such as mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Officials do not believe chronic wasting disease is transmissible to humans. Afflicted deer eventually stagger, grind teeth and starve before death.