Conservation Commission Launches CWD Detection/Prevention Effort
State officials say regulations approved by the Missouri Conservation Commission provide the best balance for keeping chronic wasting disease (CWD) out of the state and detecting any presence of the disease in time to control it.
In a special telephone conference call meeting Tuesday, the Conservation Commission unanimously approved changes to regulations related to keeping captive deer and elk.
The Conservation Commission's action capped a year-long review of the rapidly changing CWD issue. The review included options to minimize risk of the disease for Missouri's deer herd and deer and elk held in captivity. CWD has not been detected in Missouri, but discoveries of CWD among wild or captive deer and elk in a succession of states lent urgency to the process.
"We have tried to take a calm, rational and responsible approach to this," said Conservation Commission Chairman Wood. "We recognize that this disease poses a threat to Missouri's wildlife, its agriculture and its economy. But acting out of fear, before we thought through all of the effects of our action, could have had tremendous negative effects, too."
Besides tightening regulations on captive deer and elk, Conservation officials also are implementing a three-year program of aggressive CWD monitoring for the state's wild deer herd. The plan calls for testing more than 6,000 hunter-killed deer from approximately 30 counties annually, beginning in the fall of 2002. Deer from all 114 of the state's counties will be tested within three years.
Hunters' participation in the testing program will be voluntary. The Conservation Department will collect deer heads at check stations and send tissue samples to a federally approved lab in Wyoming. Hunters who allow their deer to be tested will receive test results in four to six weeks.
Combined with this effort, the Conservation Department will continue following up on reports of sick deer and testing them as it did during the 2001-2002 hunting season. None of the deer tested last year had CWD.
Conservation Department research biologists designed the wild-deer testing program to provide a statistically valid sample in each county. Wildlife Research Supervisor Eric Kurzejeski said the sampling protocol will allow detection of CWD at an infection rate as low as 2 percent.
"We want to be sure we find any potential areas of concern early enough to take corrective action," he said.
Some of the new regulations approved by the Conservation Commission will go into effect Sept. 1. That is when the Missouri Department of Agriculture's current moratorium on deer and elk importation expires. The new regulations apply to Class I wildlife breeders and big-game hunting preserves that operate under Conservation Department permits. They will require:
--Tagging of all deer and elk imported into wildlife breeding or licensed hunting preserves to allow individual animal identification.
--CWD testing of all deer and elk over 12 months of age that die of any cause in wildlife breeding facilities or breeding pens of licensed hunting preserves.
--Enrollment of wildlife breeder operations and breeding pens of licensed hunting preserves in Missouri's chronic wasting disease monitoring program by March 31, 2003.
--Maintaining records on deer and elk importation and CWD tests at breeding facilities and hunting preserves.
--Immediate reporting of any positive CWD test results.
In addition to these regulations, the Commission approved a proposed rule that would go into effect March 31, 2003. It would require big-game hunting preserves that have introduced deer or elk into the hunting area within the previous year to test up to 10 harvested animals for CWD annually.
Education about other ways that CWD could enter Missouri is another important part of the Conservation Department's plan. The agency continues to provide information to Missouri meat processors and taxidermists to ensure safe handling of animals that come from other states. Conservation Department publications also are widely available to provide information to help hunters handle harvested deer and elk safely.
The Conservation Department has regulatory authority over wild deer and over captive deer and elk at big-game hunting preserves. The state Agriculture Department is responsible for regulating farmed elk. In the past, the two agencies have worked together to control tuberculosis and brucellosis in wild and domestic animals.
To replace the current moratorium, the Agriculture Department will require anyone who wants to bring deer or elk into Missouri to get an entry permit from the state veterinarian. These animals will have to be tagged.
Animals from states with documented cases of CWD will only be eligible for permits if they come from facilities that have been enrolled in a government-sponsored CWD testing program for at least three years. Starting Sept. 30, all deer and elk coming into Missouri, regardless of place of origin, will have to come from herds that are documented to be CWD free for the past three years. These efforts are consistent with CWD control plans being developed by federal officials.
Conservation Department Director John Hoskins said the Conservation Commission considered a ban on deer and elk importation. However, he said they concluded that a ban would provide neither short- or long-term benefits.
"The Commission already prohibits the introduction of deer or elk from states where CWD has been documented unless they come from a herd that has been CWD free for at least three years," said Hoskins. "Starting Oct. 1, all deer and elk brought into Missouri will have to meet this standard, regardless of where they come from. At this time, no captive deer herd can meet this requirement."
"Under this plan, we can work in partnership with captive deer and elk operators to monitor their herds," said Hoskins. "By next spring, we will have a comprehensive monitoring program, and we will know the results of tests on the state's wild deer herd."
Wood said that until a practical, reliable live test for CWD becomes available and a coordinated national control program is in place, Missouri agencies must take responsibility for detecting and controlling the disease.
"The path we have chosen keeps the two state agencies that are responsible for tackling this issue working together with the captive deer and elk industry to protect Missouri from chronic wasting disease," Wood said. "Our new regulations mesh with those that the Department of Agriculture is developing to provide a reasonable level of protection. At this point, that is critical. No workable solution is possible without the expertise of both our agencies and the cooperation of all the people with a stake in this issue."
Hoskins said Missouri is one of the few states where agriculture, industry and conservation communities still are working hand-in-glove to fight CWD. In some states, authority for CWD and regulation of captive deer and elk is restricted to agriculture agencies. He said this arrangement gives wildlife too little importance in decision making.
"That is a very unfortunate situation that we are determined to avoid," said Hoskins. "The value of white-tailed deer in Missouri - economically and in terms of family values and social traditions - is incalculable. Missouri hunters and wildlife lovers deserve a place at the table in determining how to fight CWD, and we intend to make sure they continue to have one."
To date, CWD is known to affect only deer and elk. No link has been found between CWD and other, similar diseases.
CWD is one of a class of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs. Although they are able to spread from one deer to another, TSEs are not believed to be very contagious.
Infected elk don't show symptoms until years after infection. The disease seems to progress more swiftly in white-tailed deer, but little is known about how the disease is transmitted or how rapidly it might spread in wild white-tailed deer populations.
TSEs damage nerve tissue. CWD eventually causes infected deer's brains to develop numerous tiny holes. This gives brain tissue of deer in advanced stages of the disease a sponge-like appearance when viewed with a microscope.
TSEs are widely believed to be caused by abnormal proteins called prions. No treatments or vaccines have been found for the diseases, and they are always fatal to the infected animal.
Other TSEs include scrapie, which affects sheep, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which began in cattle in Great Britain but also infected a small number of people. Human TSEs include kuru, Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease, fatal familial insomnia and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).
CJD has been known to medical science for many years. Reports indicate that the disease occurs worldwide, with an incidence of one case per million people each year. Health researchers have not found any link between CWD and other animal or human TSEs.