COLUMBIA — As Christine Decoske approached the 8-foot-high fence, she spotted four dead and decaying deer. After further inspection, Decoske found another eight carcasses at Stinking Creek Whitetails, a small captive deer farm in Macon County.
Decoske, an agent for the Missouri Department of Conservation, knew the 12 rotting deer inside the fence could not be taken lightly. Chronic wasting disease — a deadly neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose — had already infected two ranches and subsequently was detected in wild deer near those ranches.
At a time when chronic wasting disease has turned up in 21 states and two Canadian provinces, wildlife biologists and animal health experts advise that every deer that dies in a captive facility be tested at a federal laboratory.
None of the dead deer found at Stinking Creek Whitetails was checked; they were too decomposed. But even if the carcasses had been discovered earlier, the state would have had no authority to order tests.
Nathan Ford, the owner of Stinking Creek Whitetails, was not enrolled in a voluntary program, in which deer breeders agree to have the state test deer that die in captivity.
The case of Stinking Creek Whitetails highlights gaps in Missouri's system of disease prevention and early detection more than 10 years after disease regulations were put into place and three years after the disease was first detected at a ranch in Macon County.
Statewide regulation issues
A review of Missouri’s regulatory system for captive deer facilities, which is jointly controlled by the Missouri Conservation and Agriculture departments, shows the regulatory problems go far beyond a single facility.
According to Department of Agriculture records, 131 of the 300 Missouri businesses that breed deer or keep them fenced in for hunting are not enrolled in the voluntary monitoring program.
The program allows deer breeders to ship deer across state lines, but 43 percent of Missouri's deer owners are not enrolled, and none of the 47 hunting ranches in the state are required to test for the disease.
Regulatory gaps have also been found in annual inspections the Department of Conservation requires of every captive deer business.
A review of annual inspection reports showed conservation agents had not performed annual inspections at 48 captive deer businesses in Missouri for the past three years; others had only been visited once in that time span.
A Missouri state audit from 2007 suggested the missed inspections go back to 2006. The audit attributed the missed inspections to an unorganized system of inspections and record keeping, problems that persist.
The hundreds of pages of handwritten inspection forms also provide evidence of other problems at farms and ranches across the state. Notes from conservation agents detail:
- Instances of deer escaping and fences in disrepair. Keeping captive deer separate from the wild population is one key to containing disease outbreaks.
- Owners not maintaining up-to-date records. Good record keeping can be critical in tracing the source of diseased deer.
- Unknown numbers of deer at facilities and unreported and untested deaths, all of which experts and industry studies say place the private operations — and the state's wild deer — at risk.
These regulatory gaps highlight the struggle in Missouri to keep the disease at bay three years after 11 deer were infected in 2010 at two properties owned by Heartland Wildlife Ranches LLC in Macon and Linn counties. Since then, 10 wild deer have tested positive for chronic wasting — all within a 29-square-mile area surrounding the two contaminated ranches.
Efforts to quell the disease
In August 2012, the risk of the disease spreading even farther prompted the Conservation Department to put a temporary moratorium on issuing permits for new farms and ranches, with eyes toward making that ban permanent. But the temporary ban was lifted after opposition from captive deer owners.
Earlier this month, the Conservation Department began holding meetings throughout the state to notify the public of possible rule changes that would tighten oversight of the captive deer operations.
The rules would increase the minimum height of fences or require double fencing. The rules could also include more oversight of live deer, mandatory disease testing for every permitted captive deer operation and a response plan for any facility infected.
Matt Dunfee, project coordinator for the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, an organization focused on scientific information, said evidence suggests the captive operations have played a role in transporting the disease to new areas of the country.
In Missouri and 11 other states, chronic wasting disease was first detected at a captive operation.
Dunfee said the main issue for containing the disease involves the interstate shipment of live deer and elk. He pointed to numerous examples from the past in which infected farms and ranches have shipped animals across the country.
Representatives for the captive deer industry think they are being unfairly blamed for the spread of the disease.
Bill Pittenger, former president of the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association, said the possibility of infected animals being shipped across state lines has been reduced by state and federal rules that require five years of monitoring before deer or elk can be shipped across state lines.
But even with increased monitoring, the disease has spread to previously uninfected states.
The continued spread of the elusive disease, which leaves animals emaciated, looking like staggering skeletons, has hunters and wildlife biologists afraid it could undercut the hunting industry and have ecological repercussions for the health of forests and recovering populations of wolves and mountain lions in North America.
According to the Department of Conservation, the disease could "disrupt the $1 billion in economic activity and 12,000 jobs that revolve around deer hunting and viewing."
History of the disease
Chronic wasting disease was first documented in 1967 at a captive facility in Colorado and, for decades, was relegated to Colorado and neighboring Wyoming. It wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that it caught the attention of other states.
In a five-year period from 1997 to 2002, seven states detected the disease for the first time, and the rash of new cases sent wildlife officials across the country scrambling to erect barriers.
Some states banned the importation of all deer and elk; others closed down the captive deer and elk industry altogether.
As of 2011, 16 states and one Canadian province had banned the import of all cervids — the name for deer and elk species derived from the name of their scientific family, Cervidae. Missouri and other states decided to regulate the captive deer industry and allow owners who had invested thousands of dollars to millions of dollars into their farms and ranches to continue operating.
The Missouri Department of Conservation's leading deer biologists published a report in 2000, urging the phasing out of existing captive deer operations, which numbered more than 200 at that time. The Missouri Conservation Commission, which governs the agency, declined to act on that proposal, preferring to regulate the industry instead.
Lonnie Hansen, a co-author of the report, said allowing the industry to import deer into the state was a risk the conservation commission was willing to take. “As an agency, we had to weigh the positives and the negatives,” he said.
In the end, the Conservation Department, which was the only state agency overseeing the industry, opted to heighten regulations. The rules, which took full effect in 2003, called for deer imported into the state to come from monitored herds, for every death within captive facilities to be tested and for every farm and ranch to be inspected annually.
But in the past 10 years, the testing regulations have been loosened.
The original mandatory testing requirement was replaced by the voluntary testing program when the Department of Agriculture took over animal health in 2010, and lapses in the Department of Conservation's annual inspections of numerous operations have occurred.
A 2005 audit of Michigan’s captive deer and elk industry, one of the most comprehensive ever of industry regulations, covers many of the regulatory issues in Missouri: untested deaths, record inaccuracies, undetermined deer populations, animal escapes and unorganized inspection records — all of which can contribute to the spread of chronic wasting disease.
Michigan confirmed its first case of chronic wasting disease at a captive facility in 2008 through routine, state-ordered testing. Regular state testing detected the infected deer, and there have been no additional cases.
"Had testing not been mandatory, the facility owner likely would not have tested the animal, and spread could have occurred depending on how he disposed of the carcass of the infected deer," said Dan O'Brien, a wildlife veterinarian for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and author of the 2005 audit.
The most important issue identified in the Michigan audit was lax testing of deer that die in captive operations. According to the audit, “the lack of testing is the greatest risk for introduction and propagation of the disease.”
Bryan Richards, chronic wasting disease project leader for the U.S. Geological Survey, said mortality records are critical because testing is postmortem: “Without recorded deaths, we can’t make a determination as to the cause of death."
Richards said the state having authority to determine cause of death seems reasonable to him, adding that it wouldn’t be a question if agriculture officials found multiple pigs or cows dead in a field.
In several cases from the past three years, the only way state officials learned about deaths at operations not signed up for voluntary monitoring was when conservation agents noticed there were more deer on record than inside a pen or, in the case of Stinking Creek Whitetails, when dead deer were discovered by an inspector.
Christine Tew, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, said the businesses not enrolled bred deer that never switched ownership, raised deer for "ornamental purposes" or raised deer for meat that's butchered in Missouri. The Department of Agriculture also said it monitors interstate and intrastate movement of captive deer.
Taking preventive measures
The Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association wants state agriculture officials to require every captive operation to join the herd monitoring program.
“We have been trying for a year to get everyone enrolled,” association President Sam James said. “If you made it mandatory to be in the program, you wouldn’t have these problems.”
Pittenger, former association president, said owners remain hesitant to sign up for the herd monitoring program because it is an “unfunded mandate,” and if chronic wasting disease is found, owners are no longer compensated for the loss of their herd, which is systematically killed off to prevent the spread of the disease.
Federal funding for indemnity payments to owners of infected herds was eliminated in 2011. But before funding was cut, Jay Brasher, the former owner of Heartland Wildlife Ranches, told the Missourian he was paid more than $100,000 after the government quarantined his two operations and killed all of the remaining deer.
Ensuring every facility is tested only solves part of the problem. According to the Michigan audit, government officials also need to enforce individual animal identification and accurate record keeping that chronicles importation, exportation, births and deaths.
Richards of the Geological Survey said if the disease is detected, individual animal identification and good record keeping are essential to the “trace-back process,” in which officials determine what other animals could have been exposed. “Without those records, we can’t look back in time and space,” he said.
Annual inspection forms from the past three years show conservation agents routinely ask owners to maintain better records.
Some of the record-keeping issues seemed minor, such as not recording the birth of fawns or a missing sales receipt. Other times, the issues are more serious, such as when agents issued a citation to Raymond Wagler, a deer breeder in Pike County, after he said he was unsure why 14 deer had disappeared from his property in two consecutive years.
In a 2012 inspection of Edwards Trophies, a farm in Adair County, conservation officials recorded that the owner Larry Edwards became "aggressive" when he was issued two citations for inaccurate records and "dispersing" deer without authorization.
At Dominic and Frankie Lolli's farms in Macon County, multiple inspections from 2012 to 2013 found incomplete records, fences below the minimum 8-foot height and gaps beneath fences. Conservation agents found one buck had escaped without the owners' knowledge. The buck was later found dead outside the fence.
The Department of Conservation still records inspections on individual sheets of paper that are kept at the agency’s eight regional offices for only three years — even though the 2007 Missouri audit directed conservation officials to fix those problems.
Larry Yamnitz and Randy Doman of the Department of Conservation’s Protection Division said agents could have missed the annual inspections because either no deer were at the facility or they could not set up a time to meet with the owner. They also said inspection records being stored on paper at regional offices were not a problem because conservation officials could get the records faxed.
Both the Missouri and Michigan audits stress the importance of digitizing inspection records for accessibility and archiving purposes. According to the Michigan audit, electronic record keeping could “aid compliance, enforcement and disease risk assessment.”
An improved record system could cut down on repeat violators, such as the owner of Stinking Creek Whitetails. In the two years leading up to when agent Decoske found the dozen rotting deer, Ford had been warned about gaps beneath fences, inaccurate records, unidentified deer and operating without a permit. After paying a $299 fine and $82 in court fees, Ford was issued another permit to continue operations.
“Better record keeping is a deterrent to bad actors,” said O’Brien, the Michigan veterinarian.
“We knew we had to get a lot more sophisticated about how we kept records," O'Brien said, referring to his experience with Michigan’s records system in 2005.
The system is now completely automated, he said. "I consider that one of the major improvements that came out of the audit."
State governments will have to decide how much of a risk they are willing to take, said Dunfee of the the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, but "transmission will only stop if rules are enforced."
"I'm not saying that you shouldn’t be able to raise captive deer,” Dunfee said. “I’m just saying that you should have accountability in your practices.”
Supervising editor is John Schneller.
Chronic wasting disease, a neurological disease found mostly in the deer family, spread across North America beginning in 1967. Prior to 2000, the disease was confined to parts of Colorado and Wyoming. No treatment has been found for the fatal disease, and infected animal populations are exterminated to prevent additional transmission. Graphics by Caitlin Campbell.
Big-game-hunting ranch owners must obtain a permit from the Missouri Department of Conservation to hold captive deer behind a fence. These ranches give hunters a chance to shoot captive deer. The permits inform the department on the whereabouts of captive wildlife.
Deer breeders must obtain a permit from the Missouri Department of Conservation to breed deer on their property. The majority of captive white-tailed deer in Missouri belong to wildlife breeders.
First identified as a clinical disease in Colorado in 1967, chronic wasting disease has spread throughout the United States and Canada. Found mostly in the deer family, the neurological disease causes loss of body condition and eventual death.