CAPE GIRARDEAU — The key to keeping Chronic Wasting Disease at bay in Missouri's white-tailed deer population is prevention, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, and that could mean stricter, more expensive regulations for deer breeders.
The MDC Regulations Committee at a recent meeting approved proposed regulation changes to the Wildlife Code of Missouri for deer-breeding facilities and big game hunting preserves. The proposed regulation changes include closing Missouri's borders to importing deer; new fencing standards; mandatory enrollment of all captive herds in the CWD monitoring program; and testing all captive deer that die from 6 months of age and older. The proposed regulations complement already implemented regulation changes to contain the spread of CWD in free-ranging deer.
Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is caused by a mutated protein that attacks a deer's nervous system. It does not harm humans, but it is fatal to deer and elk. The protein can be spread by live deer or carcasses, including through the soil in which they decompose. There is no cure for the disease.
After testing more than 3,500 deer harvested during and after the 2013 hunting season, no additional cases of CWD were found in free-ranging deer, and the department would like to keep it that way.
Though no new cases of CWD have been reported in Missouri, new cases have been discovered in other states, said Russell Duckworth, conservation agent and district supervisor for the MDC.
"This is a disease that continues to pop up in other places," and it is believed that once the disease has been introduced to Missouri, it is not going to work itself out of the area, Duckworth said Monday.
Whether someone is a deer hunter or animal lover, the disease could affect everyone, Duckworth said, and the state depends on the $1 billion economic effect of the deer industry.
Fifteen class-one wildlife breeders are spread among Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Perry and Scott counties in Southeast Missouri, according to the MDC. A class-one wildlife breeder generally breeds white-tailed or mule deer.
Under the new regulations, Missouri's borders will be closed off to importing deer from other states, preventing CWD cases from being brought into the state. New fencing standards would require double fencing instead of a single fence, Duckworth said. The disease is spread through deer-to-deer contact, and double fencing would keep captive deer from being able to physically contact free-ranging deer.
Though it is optional for deer breeders to enroll all captive deer in the CWD monitoring program, making it mandatory would "ensure everybody is testing their deer," Duckworth said. Dropping the age to test deceased captive deer for CWD from 12 months old to 6 months old gives the MDC a "better handle" on fawns and ensures they are disease free as well, he said.
It is the MDC's responsibility to do everything it can to ensure the white-tailed deer population is disease-free, Duckworth said.
Though a majority of the public is in favor of the stricter regulations to combat CWD, he said, concerns from deer breeders include the expense of making the proposed changes, such as the cost of switching to double fences and testing deer more often, as well no longer being able to bring in deer from other states.
"The more stringent requirements on them is going to change how they do business," Duckworth said.
Sam James, president of The Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association, is one of those deer breeders.
James has breeding and hunting facilities on his 1,050 acres about 20 miles east of Columbia. He said the potential regulations will put deer-breeding facilities like his out of business.
James imported more than 100 deer into the state last year, which had to be approved by the Missouri Department of Agriculture and had to have health documentation.
"It's not like they're willy-nilly moving all over the place," he said. "These are disease-free deer" with very little risk of carrying CWD into Missouri.
Updating fencing at captive-deer facilities could cost more than $1 million for some breeders, James said, questioning how ranchers will be able to afford potential requirements.
James called the proposed regulations "radical" and "over the top."
Missouri deer farmers are under strict CWD testing requirements, but the Missouri Department of Agriculture also requires them to test deer for tuberculosis, brucellosis and other health issues, according to the American Cervid Alliance.
The MDC will hold open houses throughout the state in June and July to discuss white-tailed deer management with residents, and CWD "absolutely" will be a topic of discussion, Duckworth said.
An online public comment period regarding white-tailed deer will be available by June 16 and will remain so through July 15, according to the MDC.