COLUMBIA — While bird dogs line up with their handlers and boys walk by to admire them, girls in blaze orange vests tote shotguns and scamper off with their parents for a round of skeet shooting.
Family Outdoor Fun Day, which took place on June 2 at the Macon County Fairgrounds, offered activities such as archery and fly tying, topped off with free hotdogs.
The event, hosted by the Missouri Department of Conservation, as well as sponsors such as the National Wild Turkey Federation and Whitetails Unlimited Magazine, is a testament to the prevalence of recreational hunting in Macon County.
But for residents of Macon County, a new uncertainty surrounds them as hunters speculate on what a newly arrived disease might mean for the deer population in Missouri's powerhouse hunting region.
Chronic wasting disease, first found in a captive deer in Colorado in 1967, has now been documented in 18 states, including Missouri.
“It’s scary because it’s something I’ve heard can’t be eliminated or controlled,”said Tom Morrow, a Macon resident at the fun day who was milling around the Department of Conservation's chronic wasting disease information table. Like others in the area, he understands full well the importance of the deer population.
“All of Macon County has a financial stake in this,” Morrow said. “Opening weekend of deer season, there’s no rooms to be had, and all the restaurants are full.”
Hunters spend more than $1 billion in Missouri each year, supporting 24,500 jobs with $433 million in wages, according to Hunting Works for Missouri. In 2011, hunters killed more deer in Macon County — 5,109 — than any other county in Missouri.
Chronic wasting disease was first discovered in Missouri in 2010 in captive deer on two Heartland Wildlife hunting ranches in Linn and Macon counties. The disease has since made the jump to wild herddeer.
“There are people who have property here for the sole purpose of hunting, and for a lot of them the disease is unknown," Macon County conservation agent Matt Bergfield said. "What we do know is that the disease is here, and it's not going anywhere."
Raymond Bloomer and Steve Larkins own separate tracts of recreational hunting land in Macon County and are well aware of the threat the disease poses for northern Missouri’s deer population. They attended a Department of Conservation open house on June 2 in New Cambria, about 15 miles west of Macon, to get questions answered about what can and is being done.
“This is a very serious, serious thing. We’re talking about people in this area who bought land to hunt," Larkins said. "I’ve been up here 20 years, and I just spent $15,000 this year improving deer habitat on my place.”
Habitat enhancements include products such as salt licks and grain feeders — anything that attracts deer that hunters can stake out. But in May the Conservation Department approved a regulation change for a six-county area around the outbreak that restricts the use of products that “unnaturally concentrate" deer in an effort to slow the disease.
In February, the state also opened an ad hoc deer season to evaluate the status of chronic wasting disease in the wild population and attempt to limit its spread. Point restrictions and bag limits were lifted, provided hunters bought tags and made samples of each carcass available for testing.
The season netted an estimated 600 to 700 deer in the six-county zone that's become the focus of testing and new regulations. Of those wild deer, five tested positive, two of which came from Bloomer's property. Another two came from properties adjacent to his.
“We hunted four days last year and killed 22 deer. That’s four people, 22 deer, in four days,” Bloomer said. “Since they shot them all in February, I haven’t seen a deer on my place. It's sickening."
In February, Bloomer captured a deer on a trail camera that showed all the symptoms of the disease: staggering, emaciated and salivating heavily while in the middle of a salt lick the size of a child's plastic swimming pool. Bloomer shot it, and after notifying conservation officers, had no choice but to use a backhoe to bury the block and the carcass deep in the ground.
"They tested probably 40 or 50 samples out of it, and we haven't gotten any results back yet," Bloomer said.
Chronic wasting disease is transmitted through saliva, waste and whole decomposition of animal carcasses. Because of the nature of the disease, there are no proven ways to rid the disease from soil or animals, and it can remain active in the environment for at least several years.
Until the research catches up, it's as good as a permanent blight. For Bloomer, the only question remaining is whether the disease will affect his grandchildren, the next generation of hunters.
"Maybe they'll see the hunting come back," Bloomer said, "but I'll never see it come back. Steve will never see it like it was."
Larkins said property values have "gone down the drain" since the outbreak. "I had a place I was leasing right next to the piece I own, and I was giving a lady from Columbia $1,700 a year. Now, I wouldn't give you $500.
"I killed one deer on that land. I canceled my lease because of this," Larkins said.
A year before the disease broke out, Larkins sold a piece of property for $1,900 an acre. Though he isn't entertaining plans to sell, he said his property has taken a hit in both dollar value and liquidity.
"Some people can buy a lead mine and discover gold. Well, I bought a gold mine and discovered lead," Larkins said.
The actual toll realized by Macon County — either from the disease itself or the hunting blitz designed to mitigate it — won't be clear until the season begins again in September. For the time being, feelings remain mixed between uneasiness and uncertainty.
"Everybody's worried, but they don't really know what's going on," said Hayden Carter, a 19-year-old hunter and artist who started his own business, Wildlife Reborn Taxidermy. He stood behind trophy animals he displayed at Family Outdoor Fun Day to promote his business.
"It's kinda worrisome because for some people deer can be like 60 or 75 percent of their paychecks," he said.
Carter works out of his basement on anything from fish to big game, and last year mounted three deer for clients at $350 apiece. He acknowledges hunting, in all forms, is a major component of life in Macon.
"If you deer hunt, there's a good chance you turkey hunt, and if you turkey hunt, there's probably a good chance you've duck hunted once or twice," Carter said. "I think a lot of people will just find something else to do."
Even as a taxidermist, Carter doesn't think a downturn in the deer season will hurt his business. Even though a deer brings in almost three times as much profit, he can prepare three ducks in the same time. He prefers birds anyway.
He understands, however, there are plenty of taxidermists who depend on clients bagging healthy trophy deer.
"Depending on how it spreads, I'm not really that worried," Carter said. "It just depends on what happens when it does explode.
"My guess is that we'll see a lot less hunters."
Supervising editor is John Schneller.