South Dakota’s self-anointed Sportsman-in-Chief, Governor Kristi Noem, had better add deer and elk to her endangered money-making species list. The discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in a Clark County wapiti signals that may be wapiti and deer across the state may be at risk:
The new case in Clark County, located west of Watertown, was also the first time in more than 15 years that a deer or elk in one of the state’s 70 captive deer facilities had tested positive for the disease. How the elk caught the disease is still a mystery, but an investigation is ongoing, said state Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven.
Officials have not found any wild deer with CWD in Clark County. But the state has stepped up its monitoring for sick deer in the area and plans to notify deer hunters about the discovery before the next hunting season this fall [Nick Lowery, “Further Spread of Chronic Wasting Disease Alarms Hunters, Wildlife Officials,” South Dakota News Watch, 2019.05.21].
CWD is caused not by viruses or bacteria but by prions, little misfolded proteins that can linger in the environment without a host for years before being picked up by deer or wapiti and triggering protein malfunctions that cause the brain to fall apart. CWD prions haven’t infected humans yet, but then neither had the prions that cause mad cow disease until an apparent mutation in the 1990s.
It sucks to have your brain melt. It would also suck to have CWD spread and scare hunters away from South Dakota’s needy economy:
In South Dakota, deer hunters spent more than $160 million in the state in 2016, according to an economic analysis by the state Game, Fish & Parks Department. About 70,000 South Dakotans hunt deer and drive an industry with about 3,900 jobs and $125 million in wages across the state [Lowery, 2019.05.21].
One good way to check the spread of CWD and protect critters, humans, and hunting revenue is to stop feeding deer and wapiti:
Don’t use animal attractants such as grain, other animal feed, or lures to concentrate animals for the purpose of improving your success hunting or observing animals. These and other wildlife feeding practices enhance the risk of transmitting CWD. Remember, CWD can be spread by, 1) animal to animal contact, 2) saliva, feces, and perhaps urine, 3) contaminated soil (presumably from the prions being shed via saliva and feces). So, it’s reasonable to assume that any factor that causes animals to come into contact with each other at a higher frequency, a higher density, and a prolonged period of time increases the probability that CWD will be transmitted. Also, since infectious prions can persist in the soil and can even be taken up by plants, continuing to concentrate animals in one spot only worsens the risk of spreading CWD. This may change the way you hunt, but CWD is indifferent to tradition [Bill Moritz and Matt Dunfee, “What Hunters Can Do to Stop Chronic Wasting Disease,” Wildlife Management Institute: Outdoor News Bulletin, December 2017].
Despite the gravity of the situation and the obvious science on CWD prevention, Game Fish & Parks wildlife program administrator Chad Switzer gets the impression South Dakotans won’t support a ban on feeding deer and wapiti:
What likely won’t get any attention is the well-intentioned feeding of wildlife, Switzer said. It’s a big problem, one that likely contributes to the spread of CWD but the backlash against banning or even severely limiting wildlife feeding could derail department efforts to build support for its work to slow the spread of CWD.
“Some would argue it’s more appropriate to work with the legislature first,” Switzer said of banning wildlife feeding [Lowery, 2019.05.21].
Consider the misguided folks in Eden who drew a big herd of deer to spend the last winter near their generous feed piles:
The whole town is talking about the deer that showed up after Thanksgiving.
“In the morning when you get up, there’s 40 or 50 of them lying on the streets in town. They’re just walking up and down by the gas station here, by the bank and the elevator. Kind of making themselves at home,” Danny said.
There are even more in the country where Lyle Michlitsch lives.
“Right in the trees, in the trees there,” Lyle Michlitsch said.
He estimates seeing 250 deer. One reason why they keep coming back is the winter has them searching for food and they know people in the area are leaving it for them.
“From my part, they got to live. I mean, they got to be fed. You know, you see them digging out in the snow. They’re digging. They’re looking for something to eat,” Lyle said [Brady Mallory, “Staggering Deer Population in Eden, SD,” KELO-TV, 2019.02.22].
Oh well. When the Governor herself builds a pheasant habitat initiative around Davy Crockett impulses instead of real science, we shouldn’t expect her administration to jump on scientific policies to protect deer and wapiti from disease.