The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Department of Agriculture today surprised a Mecosta County high-fence agricultural breeder of whitetail deer with news that the facility was infected with chronic wasting disease.
Two 3 1/2-year-old does tested positive for CWD on Jan. 10, according to the DNR. They were retested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national veterinary services laboratory in Ames, Iowa, and the results again returned positive Tuesday.
CWD is a highly contagious, fatal neurological disease affecting north american cervids, including deer, elk and moose. CWD is transmitted from one animal to another through saliva, feces and urine and also through the environment. After years of incubation, infected animals might display abnormal behavior, progressive weight loss and physical debilitation. If CWD spreads, it could have a dramatic effect on the deer herd.
Mecosta County is located in the central part of the state, west of Mt. Pleasant.
The facility owner wasn’t notified in advance because of the potential to destroy records, according to one DNR official with knowledge of the situation. The official requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
“I’m not saying it’s the case with the people that own the facility, but we’ve found that some people are less than honest,” the DNR official said.
Has this happened before?
This is the second time CWD has been found in an agricultural captive-breeding facility in Michigan. In 2008, CWD was identified in a 3-year-old white-tailed deer from a kent county deer farm. The herd was removed, and no positive animals were identified in connection.
Specific agricultural facilities are not identified because it could discourage farms and breeders from reporting problems. Facilities managed by the Department of Agriculture are exempt from Freedom of information act requests, as well.
CWD also was discovered in free-range deer last year. A total of 12,000 deer were tested since the discovery of the first (wild) case in 2015, and nine cases showed up. The Department of Natural Resources is not exempt from FOIA.
What will be done?
The Department of Natural Resources will handle testing of wildlife in the surrounding area. Wildlife services will begin working outside the fence Monday, identifying landowners and hunt clubs to shoot deer.
Hunt clubs that long have culled the herd to grow the biggest bucks will be asked to look beyond their self-interests and allow the culling for testing purposes. If CWD spreads, as it has in Wyoming and Wisconsin, the deer herd in Michigan may be doomed, and the agriculture industry will be affected. “We hope that the community will work with us. We can’t do this without their cooperation,” said Russ Mason, the DNR’s wildlife chief.
If a free-ranging deer tests positive in Mecosta County, a cwd management zone will be expanded and a cwd core area created. Additional restrictions will occur, duplicating CWD management efforts occurring in the existing CWD zone. Regardless of whether any deer are found with CWD, on April 1, the DNR will issue land owners with five acres or more disease-control permits to shoot deer in the nine townships within five miles of ground zero for the disease.
“If we find it, we move to expand the surveillance zone,” Mason said. “If we don’t find it, that’s where it ends, and we continue to collect samples. If nothing is found in three years, I think we’ve dodged the bullet. It happened in 2008; it could happen now.”
Nineteen similar facilities within a 15-square-mile supply “hunts,” as well as deer for commercial purposes such as restaurants and jerky.
“We will be working with them to ensure that the disease doesn’t spread,” Mason said. “They’re top-notch facilities with a history of cooperation.”’
Why do deer have to be killed?
The only way to test a deer is to evaluate potentially infected tissue in the brain. However, a blood-analysis technique for the human version of the disease, developed by Dr. Claudio Soto, a neurobiologist at the mcgovern medical school in Texas, shows promise for wildlife, as well.
“With blood tests, the animal doesn’t have to die to see if it is diseased,” Soto said. “We are implementing the facilities for the testing at the same time we are trying to get the blessing of the USDA to do this more officially. For deer, we hope within 3-6 months. We are thinking it will be in the neighborhood of $40 a test.”
What happens if CWD isn’t treated aggressively?
CWD has been found in 24 states. Some initially ignored it or stopped addressing it after hunters and landowners didn’t like the measures necessary to control it. This has resulted in states such as Wyoming and Wisconsin with herds infected at high levels.
“We don’t want to make the mistakes those states have made,” Mason said. “You can’t leave it alone and then come back and deal with it later. We need to treat it as a chronic condition, applying just the right medicine at the lowest level so it doesn’t impact deer hunting or agriculture. And recognize this is something that can go on for a very long period of time.”
Whose fault is it?
CWD can be transmitted many ways. Hunters bring carcasses back from CWD-infected states and dump the remains. A high-fence facility can receive an infected animal without being aware of it. Bleach doesn’t kill the disease, and it remains infectious for years after the saliva or feces of an animal have touched an area. Hypervigilance and the removal of potentially infected animals will go a long way toward keep it from spreading.
Is it a danger to humans?
There is no evidence that CWD presents a risk to humans nor other non-cervids. CWD is similar to mad cow disease (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy), which took hundreds of millions of exposures to meat infected with the misfolded proteins before resulting in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative brain disorder that leads to dementia and death.