ST. LOUIS — Deer in Missouri are dying from a rare but fatal disease, and the Missouri legislature is expected to consider conflicting ways to contain the problem in the 2014 session.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that since the first case in 2010 on a private hunting ranch in Linn County, 20 more dead deer have tested positive for chronic wasting disease, or CWD, all within a two-county area of north-central Missouri. Ten of the deer were at an affiliated hunting ranch in Macon County; the rest were wild deer taken by hunters near the Macon ranch.
Conservationists and owners of fenced hunting ranches disagree over how to approach the disease. The Missouri Department of Conservation is considering stricter rules for hunting ranches. One option would require them to build higher, double fences. Hunting ranch operators say that would be expensive and offensive.
The Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association plans to ask lawmakers to declare the captive deer "livestock." That would mean they would be regulated by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, not the conservation department, which currently regulates all 1.4 million deer in the state.
Sam James, association president, said his group will seek help from the legislature in the session that begins Jan. 8.
"I think Conservation is trying to put us out of business," said James, who owns the two Whitetail Dreams hunting ranches near Fulton. "There are people (in the department) who don't approve of what we do, and we've had enough of it. Putting us under one state agency makes much more sense, and Agriculture can do the better job."
Missouri is home to more than 40 private hunting ranches.
Aaron Jeffries, assistant director of the conservation department, said the agency does not object to hunting ranches but represents all of Missouri's hunters and wildlife enthusiasts.
"With captive deer being transported across our landscape, we need to enhance our fencing standards," Jeffries said. "To define a captive deer as livestock is not a good road to go. Our job is to protect deer on both sides of the fence."
CWD is caused by a mutated protein, or prion, that attacks the nervous system. It does not harm humans but is fatal to deer or elk. The prion can be spread by live deer or carcasses, even from soil in which they decompose. There is no cure.
The disease was first found in Colorado in 1967 and has been confirmed in 21 other states.
Joe Humphrey, owner of Beaver Creek Ranch near Poplar Bluff, said ranch operators already have strong business reasons not to let CWD spread in any herd, captive or wild.
"How does it fix this by killing our industry?" he said.