Commission Postpones New CWD Rules

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The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission has postponed taking action to further restrict movement of white-tailed and mule deer, applauding a cooperative effort between state officials and scientific breeder permit holders to develop a monitoring program for safeguarding Texas' multi-billion dollar hunting and livestock industry against Chronic Wasting Disease.

The Commission's decision to delay action until later this year was based on the efforts of the Texas Deer Association, staff from the Texas Animal Health Commission and TPWD to implement a captive deer surveillance program. At issue is the state's ability to minimize the risk of a CWD outbreak and thereby avoid a scenario similar to that in Wisconsin where natural resource officials are attempting to stem the spread of CWD by eliminating 15,000 white-tailed deer from an area where the disease was discovered.

In April, the TPWD Commission adopted rules prohibiting all importation of white-tailed and mule deer into the state because of the recent emergence and spread of CWD in both captive and free-ranging deer populations in several other states. Although the rules were helpful in reducing the risk of disease outbreak, they did not effectively address concerns about CWD -- specifically the possibility that infected or exposed deer could unknowingly have been imported into Texas and possibly infect wild deer or domestic stock. According to TPWD records, scientific breeders have imported 43 deer into Texas from Wisconsin since 1998, including more than a dozen from the area where CWD was detected.

According to Jerry Cooke, Ph.D and TPWD game branch chief, CWD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy similar to Mad Cow Disease, except that CWD has only been found in elk and certain other deer. He said the disease causes a degeneration of brain tissue in affected animals and is fatal.

"The biological and epidemiological nature of CWD is not well understood and has not been extensively studied, but it is known to be communicable, incurable and invariably fatal, he told commissioners. "At the current time, there is no live test for CWD; animals suspected of having the disease must be euthanized in order to obtain brain tissue for definitive diagnosis. Affected animals may take years before exhibiting symptoms of the disease, making it difficult to track and contain the spread of infection."

The TAHC, which is charged with controlling disease threats to domestic livestock, recently prohibited the importation of white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer and elk into Texas from all states in response to the presence of free-ranging CWD in many herds. Free-ranging CWD has been detected in populations in Colorado, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Wyoming and is known to have occurred in captive herds in Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. The action does not apply to deer that have already been imported into the state.

TPWD regulates the importation of white-tailed and mule deer through Scientific Breeder Permit regulations. Prior to this action, deer could be brought into Texas with the proper permit as long as they were accompanied by a veterinarian's statement that the animals were free of evidence of contagious and communicable diseases and had adhered to any TAHC testing requirements.

TAHC is proposing entry requirements for deer and elk, where animals can only be imported from premises that have attained a "healthy herd status," meaning no evidence of the disease for five consecutive years. Once the TAHC Commission adopts the regulation, TPWD is expected to rescind its importation suspension.

With more than 4 million animals, Texas has the largest population of white-tailed deer in the nation. About 19,000 deer are being held in scientific breeder pens. At present, there have been no confirmed cases of CWD in Texas.

Until now, however, no one in Texas was actively looking for the disease. To ensure CWD is not present in captive herds, TPWD and TAHC estimate about one-quarter of the 467 scientific breeders in Texas would need to enroll in a voluntary monitoring program for monitoring to be effective.

In addition to tracking captive herds, TPWD is planning to test deer taken by public hunters beginning this fall. The agency's goal during the next few years is to test at least 200 deer for CWD from each of the state's six ecological regions.

"If we can do that, I'm confident we'll be doing everything that can be reasonably done," said Cooke.