February 11, 2016

Lawmakers hear conflicting testimony on deer disease in Missouri (AUDIO)

The House Interim Committee on Cause and Spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in the Elk and White Tail Deer Population has heard two very different sets of information from those who do, and don’t, think captive breeders are to blame for the disease coming to Missouri.

A full hearing room listens to testimony from Doctor James Kroll of Stephen F. Austin University about chronic wasting disease management.  (Photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

A full hearing room listens to testimony from Doctor James Kroll of Stephen F. Austin University about chronic wasting disease management. (Photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The disease affects deer and other cervids. The first positive tests for the disease from deer in Missouri were found in 2010 in captive deer on private hunting preserves in Macon and Linn Counties in north-central Missouri. Since then, 21 total cases of the disease have been confirmed in the state, all in deer either on those preserves or within a ten-county containment zone near them.

Outdoor Guide Magazine conservation editor Steve Jones says that mirrors instances of CWD’s spread into other parts of the country.

“Tracking the spread of the disease on the North American map reveals clear association with the confined cervid industry. The massive geographic leaps such as the one that brought CWD to Missouri are clearly the result of the commercial movement of live cervids. Can it be proven? No. Is it obvious? Yes.”

Kevin Grace of White Tail Sales & Auction in Eldon argues that among about 8,000 captive breeders in the U.S. there have been only 54 positive tests for the disease since 2002.

“Since the infancy stages of this disease, there has never been a trace back or a trace forward, never, to cross the state line … in all this time, only one time has an infected deer been moved from one farm to another.”

After the Conservation Department made a presentation, Doctor James Kroll with Stephen F. Austin University in Texas was allowed to testify at length before several others were limited to two-minute blocks of testimony due to lack of time. He tells lawmakers he thinks chronic wasting disease is not as new to the state as Missourians have been told.

“It’s always been out there. Is CWD spreading or is testing spreading? The more we test, the more likely we are to find it.”

The committee’s chairwoman, Representative Sandy Crawford (R-Buffalo), says the main question it will consider is whether captive breeders should be subject to tighter regulations. She says changes considered last year by the Conservation Department would have “basically put some of our deer breeders, if not all of them, out of business eventually.”

On Monday, Jones told her committee it must consider such regulations or face backlash from the state’s hunting population.

“If the legislative response to this horrible disease places the needs of a small industry above the clear and urgent public interest, do not count on the continued silence of those 500,000 Missourians.”

The two sides also disagree over how great a threat, if any, the disease poses to the state’s deer herd.

Donald Hill, a deer breeder in central Missouri, insists that threat is being overblown by the Conservation Department for political gain.

“Conservation … we are their competition and they want us out of this picture. It doesn’t have anything to do with CWD … I can take everything they print in their magazine and I can dispute it with scientific evidence.”

Kroll suggests that the Conservation Department’s efforts to cull the local herd around where the cases of CWD have been found could actually hinder the natural evolution of a resistance to the disease.

“In order for an animal to adapt to any disease … you’ve got to have two things. You’ve got to have a large population and you have to have high genetic variability. Whitetail deer have both of them, and I fully anticipate genetic response, if it’s even necessary, to that disease.”

Crawford says the committee is also considering whether the legislature should change how the management of deer is conducted. Breeders want to be put under the control of the Department of Agriculture.

Their critics, like Richard Ash, Conservation Federation President, say they should remain under the control of the Conservation Department.

“We believe that there should be one entity that is looking at the regulatory actions. You can’t have multiple bosses … we believe that MDC should be responsible for all wildlife whether its native or non-native, captive or free-roaming.”

Others, such as Doug Smentkowski with the Mule Deer Foundation, urged compromise.

“Both sides need to seek common ground. There are items that both sides can move on and an agreement does need to be reached because if we don’t reach an agreement, they’re just going to keep fighting.”

The committee will meet three more times, once a month through October in Buffalo, Jefferson City and Poplar Bluff.

AUDIO:  Testimony of Doctor James Kroll, Stephen F. Austin University 35:51

AUDIO:  Testimony of Outdoor Guide Magazine conservation editor Steve Jones, 4:23