Targeting Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

MDC employee Mark Raithel prepares to collect lymph nodes from the neck of a hunter-harvested deer to have them tested for chronic wasting disease. MDC collected about 19,200 tissues samples at 75 locations in central, northeast, and east-central Missouri on opening weekend of the November Firearms Deer Season.

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MDC employee Mark Raithel prepares to collect lymph nodes from the neck of a hunter-harvested deer to have them tested for chronic wasting disease.  MDC collected about 19,200 tissues samples at 75 locations in central, northeast, and east-central Missouri on opening weekend of the November Firearms Deer Season.
MDC employee Mark Raithel prepares to collect lymph nodes from the neck of a hunter-harvested deer to have them tested for chronic wasting disease. MDC collected about 19,200 tissues samples at 75 locations in central, northeast, and east-central Missouri on opening weekend of the November Firearms Deer Season.

By Jim Low

Last weekend, Missouri hunters brought 19,200 deer to 75 stations set up by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to gather tissue samples to be tested for chronic wasting disease (CWD).  It was a huge effort that involved approximately 1,200 MDC employees – the majority of MDC’s full-time employees – working at sampling stations on opening weekend of the November firearms deer season.

This intensive effort is the latest piece of MDC’s ongoing program to detect and slow the spread of a disease that – if left unchecked – will spell the end of deer hunting as we know it in the Show-Me State.  That would be a catastrophe for several reasons.  For one thing, the state’s deer herd is the foundation of a deep and rich outdoor tradition.  I don’t know how many people the Kansas City Royals, the St.  Louis Blues or the MU Tigers pull in for a game, but I’m sure those figures would be dwarfed by the more than 500,000 hunters who pour into Missouri’s forests and fields every November in pursuit of deer.

Deer hunting is more than a cherished tradition in Missouri.  It also yields approximately 2.5 million pounds of lean red meat annually.  If you assume a very conservative value of $5 per pound for organic, free-range venison, that’s $12.5 million worth of meat.  And thanks to hunters’ generosity through the Share the Harvest program, approximately 10 percent of Missouri’s annual deer harvest goes to food banks and local charities that provide nutritional assistance to our neediest families.  Besides all that, economists figure that deer hunting supports around 12,000 Show-Me State jobs and pumps more than $1 billion into the state and local economies.

However, if you ask deer hunters why they go out with rifle in hand each November, you aren’t likely to hear about dollars and cents.  I posed this question to several hunters while I was at the Cole County R-5 School in Eugene on opening day, having my deer sampled for CWD.  Every single one mentioned the mental and emotional boost they get from time spent in the woods, engaged in the age-old quest to provide food for themselves and their families.  Their sentiments were summed up most eloquently by one of the younger hunters I spoke with, David Newton, of Jefferson City.

“There is something spiritual and right in my soul when I get to hunt,” Newton told me.  “My life is really busy, and even if I don’t get to shoot anything, if I get to sit in the woods and think about the world, see how things slowly move, it puts my mind in the right place.  There’s also the challenge of providing food for my family, having the blessing of being able to take dominion over the earth like God gave us.  It all fits in.”

I also asked hunters if the spread of CWD in Missouri concerns them.  They all said yes, and again, Newton had a good answer.

“As someone who is passionate about hunting, it’s certainly something I’m concerned about and want to see dealt with sooner rather than later,” said Newton.  “I hear guys talk about the time in the past when there weren’t deer around.  I’m a young guy, so if I hunt long enough, I know I’m going to see deer.  But if deer get sick and start dying out, there won’t be deer any more.  I’ve got three boys.  When they’re old enough to hunt, I don’t want them to have five or six years when they don’t see a deer.”

All this is enough to make you wonder how we got to the point where such a valuable and treasured resource is in danger of disappearing.  As in other eastern states where CWD has cropped up in the past 20 years, Missouri’s outbreaks in free-ranging deer all have occurred adjacent to high-fence facilities where deer are kept for breeding and shooting.  Since the owners of these facilities have a financial stake in deer health, you might think they would be in the forefront of efforts to contain CWD.  You would be wrong.  Missouri’s deer breeders and purveyors of canned hunts have fought tooth and nail against common-sense measures proposed by the Missouri Conservation Commission as a compromise to allow captive-deer facilities to continue operating.

There was a time when the average hunter’s attitude toward captive-deer operations was live-and-let-live.  Paying to shoot a “frankendeer” with freakishly large antlers as it bellied up to a timed corn feeder might not have appealed to them, but they weren’t willing to criticize others for doing so, even if it seemed like the opposite of hunting.  But now, with CWD threatening to destroy the sport they love, and with the danger of creating a new outbreak every time a deer is imported or moved from one shooting pen to another in Missouri, attitudes are changing.

Earlier this year, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission announced the discovery of an extensive CWD outbreak in counties bordering southwestern Missouri.  This expands the already huge area that MDC must monitor for the presence and spread of CWD.  At this rate, CWD could be so widespread in Missouri that containment is impossible within a very few years.

Thank You – These MDC staff were among about 1,200 who collected tissue samples from hunter-harvested deer to test for chronic wasting disease.
Thank You – These MDC staff were among about 1,200 who collected tissue samples from hunter-harvested deer to test for chronic wasting disease.

Missouri deer breeders and pay-to-shoot operations currently are unregulated, as a lawsuit they brought against the Conservation Commission works its way through the legal system.  So far, their money has spoken louder than hunters’ voices in the courts and in the Missouri legislature.   If you care about deer hunting, read up on CWD at mdc.mo.gov/CWD, and express your desire for action forcefully to the Conservation Commission and to your state and national legislators.

After having my deer sampled for CWD, I also asked other hunters there if they thought shooting deer inside fenced enclosures is “hunting.” Not one said yes.

I’m inclined to say no,” said Newton.  “Every intuition in me says no.  Maybe that’s rooted in the pride of hunting and the feeling that it’s not as challenging.  I think this idea of shooting for sport and shooting enclosed animals, I don’t think it’s hunting.  I don’t think its showing proper reverence or honoring the opportunity we have to hunt.”

Details about MDC’s CWD sampling are printed in the 2016 Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting booklet, available wherever hunting permits are sold.  Hunters who shoot deer throughout the rest of the hunting season in the 29 counties of the CWD management zone can still have their deer tested for the disease.  Contact the MDC Central Regional Office in Columbia at 573-815-7900, the MDC Northeast Regional Office in Kirksville at 660-785-2420, or the MDC St.  Louis Regional Office in St.  Charles at 636-441-4554.  Hunters can also find voluntary CWD sampling stations at mdc.mo.gov/CWD.

On a much more positive note, thanks to all of you who turned out to vote for renewing Missouri’s 1/10th of 1 percent sales tax for parks and soil and water conservation.  Eight out of 10 voters approved the renewal, sending a resounding message to state officials about how much Missourians value their parks.  Well done!